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oil and gasMarch 27, 2021

'Dangerous' Radioactive Material to be Moved from Zahrani Oil Installations

Around two kilograms of radioactive material containing depleted uranium will be moved from the state-run Zahrani Oil Installations (ZOI) in the South to the stores of the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission, ZOI director Ziad al-Zein said on Friday.

Al-Zein’s remarks come after media reports described the material as “dangerous” and sparked an uproar on social media.

Speaking to al-Jadeed TV, al-Zein said a specialized German firm had discovered the material during an inspection ordered by the Directorate General of Oil in the wake of the August 4 ammonium nitrate blast at Beirut port.

Al-Jadeed meanwhile published images of a few small jars carrying labels declaring the presence of the uranyl acetate material inside of them.

Al-Zein said the material had been brought “in the 1950s, when the Installations were under the administration of U.S. firm Medreco.”

Medreco was an American company whose main shareholders were Mobil and Caltex and it was active in Lebanon for four decades until the late 1980s.

“The Installations contained an oil refinery, prior to the issuance of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” al-Zein added.

He explained that the German firm, Combi Lift, later asked the state-run Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission to inspect the material, at the instructions of the Directorate General of Oil that is under the authority of the Energy and Water Ministry.

The Commission recommended that it be given this material for use in researches at its laboratories or to be re-packaged according to international standards, al-Zein added.

“The material will be moved on Monday from the Installations to the stores of the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission and will become in its guardianship,” al-Zein went on to say.

In a statement unveiled by al-Jadeed, the Commission had described the material as dangerous and noted that it would inform the International Atomic Energy Agency of the issue.

According to Wikipedia, uranyl acetate is both radioactive and toxic.

'Normal commercial stocks prepared from depleted uranium have a typical specific activity of 0.37–0.51 microcuries (14–19 kBq) per gram. This mild level of radioactivity is insufficient to be harmful while the material remains external to the body,' Wikipedia says.

'Uranyl acetate is very toxic if ingested, inhaled as dust or by skin contact if skin is cut or abraded. The toxicity is due to the combined effect of chemical toxicity and mild radioactivity and there is a danger of cumulative effects from long term exposure,' Wikipedia adds.

During a meeting of the Higher Defense Council earlier on Friday, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab told other officials that the material 'is a highly pure nuclear substance' and its presence poses dangers.

'This matter should be discussed now and quick measures should be taken to deal with it with great concern,' Diab said.

In November, Lebanon signed a deal with Combi Lift to treat and ship abroad containers consisting of flammable chemicals found in the wreckage of Beirut's port. Combi Lift completed the treatment of 52 containers of 'hazardous and dangerous chemical material' and was ready to ship them outside the country, Germany's ambassador to Lebanon said last month.

The deal between Lebanon and Combi Lift is worth $3.6 million, toward which port authorities in Lebanon paid $2 million, with the German government covering the rest.

Malte Steinhoff, a spokesman for Combi Lift in Germany, declined to give specific details on either the nuclear material or the chemical shipment.

Combi Lift, Steinhoff said in an email to The Associated Press, is currently in talks with the Lebanese government.

'This concerns possible salvage projects at the refineries in Tripoli and Zahrani,' Steinhoff added. 'There are no concrete results yet. We do not want to comment on any findings.'