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Theft of Radioactive Material From Halliburton Is Probed

Halliburton Co. says an oil-field device that contains radioactive material was stolen in early December from its operations in Nigeria.

Atomic-watchdog officials are concerned that the material -- americium 241 -- could be used to create a so-called dirty bomb, an explosive to scatter radioactive agents in a densely populated area.

The disappearance is being investigated by officials from the Nigerian and U.S. governments and from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Halliburton, a Houston oil-field services company, said it is cooperating. IAEA investigators have been in the west African nation for two weeks but have been unable to determine how the device was stolen, said Mark Gwozdecky, a spokesman for the United Nations agency.

There's no evidence the theft is connected to terrorism. Nigeria oil and natural-gas production is plagued by petty vandalism and theft. In Washington, officials at the Department of Homeland Security played down the significance of the incident. "This is a fairly common occurrence," said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "It is not a major issue at this time."

Still, the Nigerian government reported on national television last month that radioactive material had been stolen and warned residents to be cautious if they found it. U.S. diplomats and IAEA investigators said that if the material had been stolen for sale as scrap, it should have been located by now. They said the fact that no one has turned up at a hospital with radiation poisoning raises concerns that the culprits intentionally stole the material.

The theft occurred between the towns of Wari and Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, in the heart of the country's oil-producing region. The well-logging device, which was in a locked storage box that weighs about 200 pounds and is the size of a small car engine block, is used to detect the presence of oil at various depths, said Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall.

Michael Levi, director of the Strategic Security Project for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank, said these devices typically contain about 10 curies of radioactive americium. If this were combined with a pound of TNT and exploded, an area covering 60 city blocks would be contaminated with a radiation dose in excess of safety guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

-- Alexei Barrionuevo in Houston and Jacob M. Schlesinger in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Russell Gold at russell.gold@wsj.com, and Robert Block at bobby.block@wsj.com.

Updated March 6, 2003