BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Marines may have found weapons-grade plutonium in a massive underground facility discovered beneath Iraq's Al Tuwaitha nuclear complex, Fox News confirmed Friday.
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Coalition forces are investigating a stash of radioactive material found at the site south of Baghdad, an embedded reporter, Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, first told Fox News on Thursday.
U.S. defense officials on Friday confirmed that preliminary field tests did in fact indicate the material could be plutonium.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that any potential weapons of mass destruction retrieved during Operation Iraqi Freedom will be analyzed by not only U.S. scientists, but weapons experts around the world, to be sure of the results.
Meanwhile, the Army Times reported that troops with the 101st Airborne Division this week unearthed 11 shipping containers full of lab equipment at a chemical plant in Karbala.
The material was discovered at the complex, which is operated by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and is located south of Baghdad's suburbs.
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While officials aren't prepared to call the discovery a "smoking gun," two preliminary tests conducted on the material have indicated that it may be weapons-grade plutonium.
The discovery of the underground labyrinth of labs and warehouses was unexpected, Fox News has confirmed, and forces in the area are testing a variety of things to best determine the significance of the find.
So far, Marine nuclear and intelligence experts have found 14 buildings that have high levels of radiation, Prine reported Thursday.
His report noted that some of the tests have found nuclear residue too deadly for human contact.
The Marine radiation detectors go "off the charts" a few hundred meters outside the nuclear compound, where locals say "missile water" is stored in enormous caverns, reported Prine, who is embedded with the U.S. 1st Marine Division.
"It's amazing," Chief Warrant Officer Darrin Flick, the battalion's nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist told the newspaper. "I went to the off-site storage buildings, and the rad detector went off the charts. Then I opened the steel door, and there were all these drums, many, many drums, of highly radioactive material."
Former Iraqi scientist Gazi George told Fox News Friday that the material "definitely" could have been planned for use in nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.
"The high levels of radiation suggest it's a high-level nuclear waste that was stored underground, trying to hide it for the process of repurposing it for the future … or just to make dirty bombs out of the material that's down there," George said.
"If the material has not been disclosed by Iraqis to the United Nations …[then] definitely this material was hidden there to use it as a source for extracting plutonium chemically and using it in dirty bombs.
"Saddam always tried to hide ... uranium or other nuclear fuels so we could use them in the future for weapons of mass destruction."
George said it's important the coalition find Iraqi scientists who know about these weapons so they can hunt down the harmful material and destroy it.
"I think this demonstrates the failure of the U.N. weapons inspections and demonstrates that our guys are going to find the weapons of mass destruction."
This underground discovery could still test to be perfectly legitimate and offer no proof of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The CIA encouraged international inspectors in the fall of 2002 to probe Al Tuwaitha for weapons of mass destruction, and the inspectors came away empty-handed.
"They went through that site multiple times, but did they go underground? I never heard anything about that," physicist David Albright, a former IAEA Action Team inspector in Iraq from 1992 to 1997, told the Tribune-Review.
"The Marines should be particularly careful because of those high readings," he told the paper. "Three hours at levels like that and people begin to vomit. That leads me to wonder, if the readings are accurate, whether radioactive material was deliberately left there to expose people to dangerous levels.
"You couldn't do scientific work in levels like that. You would die."
Capt. John Seegar, a combat engineer commander from Houston, is currently running the operation in Al Tuwaitha. "I've never seen anything like it, ever," he told the Tribune-Review. "How did the world miss all of this? Why couldn't they see what was happening here?"
The Army Times reported that troops from the 326th Engineer Battalion and chemical specialists on Wednesday found steel containers full of $1 million of sophisticated lab equipment near the Karbala Chemical Company.
The equipment included a machine used to analyze chemical compounds and a 750-pound centrifugal pump that was made in Finland, shipped to a Jordan company and ended up in Iraq. One bin was filled with documents on Baath Party letterhead.
Chemical protective mask filters were on the ground and hand grenades and loose ammunition were also in the facility.
The Mobile Exploitation Team -- made up of civilians and military chemical experts -- went to the scene Thursday and closed off the area.
"This is significant," Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Gonzales, head of the team, told the Army Times. "We would not be here if it was inconsequential."
U.N. weapons inspectors spent five hours at an adjacent munitions factory on Feb. 23.
The Karbala Chemical Plant supposedly was bombed during the first Gulf War, but there are signs that an active lab there was recently used.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and Major Garrett contributed to this report.