UN nuclear watchdog: 2.5 tons of uranium missing in Libya
Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Some 2.5 tonnes of natural uranium stored at a site in war-torn Libya has gone missing, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, raising security and proliferation concerns.
Natural uranium cannot be immediately used for power generation or fuel for a bomb, as the enrichment process typically requires the metal to be converted into a gas and then centrifuged to reach the necessary levels.
However, each tonne of natural uranium – if obtained by a group with the means and technological resources – can be refined to 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) of weapons-grade material over time, experts say. This makes the search for the missing metal important for non-proliferation experts.
In a statement, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said its director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, informed member states of the missing uranium on Wednesday.
The IAEA statement, however, remained tight-lipped on most details.
On Tuesday, “the agency’s safeguards inspectors discovered that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present as previously reported at a state site. Libyan,” the IAEA said. “Further activities will be carried out by the agency to clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear materials and their current location.”
Reuters first reported on the IAEA’s warning about the missing Libyan uranium, saying the IAEA had told members that reaching the site which is not under government control required “logistics complex”.
The IAEA declined to offer further details on the missing uranium. However, his acknowledgment that the uranium disappeared at a “previously declared site” narrows the possibilities.
One such declared site is Sabha, about 660 kilometers (410 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in the country’s lawless southern part of the Sahara Desert. There, Libya under dictator Muammar Gaddafi stockpiled thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium for a once-planned uranium conversion facility that was never built in its secret weapons program of several decades.
Estimates put the Libyan stockpile at some 1,000 metric tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who declared his fledgling nuclear weapons program to the world in 2003 after the United States invaded Iraq.
While inspectors removed the last enriched uranium from Libya in 2009, the yellowcake remained behind, with the UN estimating in 2013 that around 6,400 barrels were stored at Sabha. According to a 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, US officials feared Iran was trying to buy the uranium from Libya, which Gaddafi’s top civilian nuclear official tried to reassure the US.
“Underlining that Libya viewed the issue as primarily commercial, (the official) noted that uranium yellowcake prices on the world market had increased and that Libya wanted to maximize its profit by properly timing the sale of its stockpile. “, then – Ambassador Gene A. Cretz wrote.
But the 2011 Arab Spring saw rebels overthrow Gaddafi and ultimately kill him. Sabha has become increasingly lawless, with African migrants crossing into Libya, claiming some were sold into slavery in the town, the UN reported.
In recent years, Sabha has been largely under the control of the so-called Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Hifter. The general, who is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his Gaddafi-era exile, is fighting for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government.
A spokesperson for Hifter declined to answer questions from The Associated Press. Chadian rebel forces have also had a presence in the southern city in recent years.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo contributed to this report.