Tuesday, 21 Mar 2023

Two tonnes of Uranium has gone missing in Libya, says UN nuclear watchdog

About 2.5 tons of natural uranium has gone missing from a site in war-torn Libya, sparking safety concerns from a UN nuclear watchdog.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), informed the United Nations on Tuesday that ‘10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present as previously declared at a location in the state of Libya.’

It is unclear when the uranium went missing or who could have taken it.

But it was reportedly taken at least in part from Sabha, a remote site over 400 miles away from Libya’s capital Tripoli, in the country’s lawless southern reaches of the Sahara Desert.

The agency said they would conduct further investigations to clarify the circumstances around the removal of the nuclear material and pinpoint its current location.

Natural uranium cannot immediately be used for energy production or bomb fuel as the enrichment process typically requires the metal to be converted into a gas, then later spun in centrifuges to reach the levels needed.

However, each ton of natural uranium – if obtained by a group with the technological means and resources – can be refined to 12lb of weapons-grade material over time, experts say, making the recovery of the missing metal important for non-proliferation experts.

The IAEA had previously warned the UN about the missing Libyan uranium, and told members that reaching the site – which is not under government control – required ‘complex logistics’.

Grossi said an inspection originally planned for last year ‘had to be postponed because of the security situation in the region’ and was finally conducted on Tuesday.

‘The loss of knowledge about the present location of nuclear material may present a radiological risk, as well as nuclear security concerns,’ he added, and said that reaching the site required ‘complex logistics’.

Libya under dictator Muammar Gaddafi stored thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium there for a once-planned conversion facility that was never built in his decades-long secret weapons programme.

Estimates put the Libyan stockpile at 1,000 metric tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who declared his nascent nuclear weapons programme to the world in 2003 after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

While inspectors removed the last of the enriched uranium from Libya in 2009, the yellowcake remained behind, with the UN in 2013 estimating 6,400 barrels were stored at Sabha.

American officials had worried that Iran could try to purchase the uranium from Libya, something Gaddafi’s top civilian nuclear official tried to reassure the US about, according to a 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.

‘Stressing that Libya viewed the question as primarily a commercial one, (the official) noted that prices for uranium yellowcake on the world market had been increasing, and that Libya wanted to maximise its profit by properly timing the sale of its stockpile,’ then-ambassador Gene A Cretz wrote.

But the 2011 Arab Spring saw rebels topple Gaddafi and ultimately kill him. Sabha grew increasingly lawless, with African migrants crossing Libya saying some had been sold as slaves in the city, the UN reported.

In recent years, Sabha has largely been under the control of the self-styled Libyan National Army, headed by Khalifa Hifter. The general, who is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his time in exile during Gaddafi’s era, has been battling for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government.

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