Libya: 2½ tons of uranium go missing in war-torn country, sparking nuclear safety fears

2½ tons of uranium go missing in war-torn Libya, sparking nuclear safety fears

  • The Atomic Energy Agency informed the members of the United Nations on Wednesday
  • Each ton of uranium can be refined over time into 12 pounds of weapons-grade material

The United Nations nuclear watchdog has revealed that about two and a half tons of uranium have disappeared in war-torn Libya, raising concerns about nuclear safety.

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

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

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday that its director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has informed member states about the missing uranium.

On Tuesday, safeguards inspectors found that 10 barrels containing about 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present, as previously stated at a site in the state of Libya, the IAEA said.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi (pictured) informed UN member states about the missing uranium on Wednesday

“Further activities will be conducted by the agency to clarify the circumstances of the disposal of the nuclear material and its current location.”

Reuters first reported on the IAEA alert on the missing Libyan uranium, saying the agency had told members that reaching the site – which is not under government control – would require “complex logistics.”

The IAEA declined to provide more details about the missing uranium, but the acknowledgment that the metal disappeared from a “previously specified location” narrows the possibilities.

One such location is Sabha, 400 miles southeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli, in the lawless southern reaches of the Sahara.

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

Estimates put Libya’s stockpile at 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who announced his burgeoning nuclear weapons program 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 was left behind, with the UN estimated in 2013 that 6,400 barrels were stored in Sabha.

Each ton of natural uranium — if obtained by a group with the technological means — could be refined over time into 12 pounds of weapons-grade material, experts say. In the photo: Libyan flag

US officials feared Iran might try to buy 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.

‘Emphasizing that Libya viewed the issue primarily as a commercial one, (the official) noted that prices for uranium yellowcake had risen on the world market and that Libya wanted to maximize its profits by timing the sale of its stockpile well’ , when Ambassador Gene A Cretz wrote.

But the 2011 Arab Spring saw rebels overthrow Gaddafi and eventually 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 been largely under the control of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Hifter. The general, who is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his time in exile under Gaddafi, is vying for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government.


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