The UN’s nuclear watchdog reported the disappearance of 2.5 tons of natural uranium in war-torn Libya on Thursday, raising concerns about nuclear safety and proliferation. While natural uranium cannot be used directly in nuclear power or weapons production, enriching it requires converting the metal to gas and using centrifuges to reach the necessary levels.
However, one ton of natural uranium, in the hands of a group with sufficient resources and technology, can be refined into 5.6 kilograms of weapon-grade material, making the search for the missing uranium vital for non-proliferation experts. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed member states about the disappearance of the uranium in a statement, but did not provide specific details.
The IAEA said inspectors discovered the absence of 10 barrels containing about 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of ore concentrate at a site in Libya and will conduct additional investigations to clarify the circumstances and current whereabouts of the missing nuclear material. Reuters was the first to report on the IAEA warning, noting that reaching the site, which is not under government control, requires “complex logistics”.
One of the sites previously reported is Sabha, some 410 miles southeast of Tripoli, where the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi stored thousands of barrels of yellow cake uranium for a conversion facility that was never built as part of its covert program. Libya’s arsenal is estimated to have totaled about 1,000 tons of yellow uranium under Gaddafi, who announced his fledgling nuclear program in 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Although inspectors removed the last of the enriched uranium from Libya in 2009, the yellow cake was left behind and the UN estimated in 2013 that some 6,400 barrels were stored in Sabha. A 2009 diplomatic telegram published by WikiLeaks revealed concerns among US officials that Iran might try to acquire Libyan uranium. However, an official of the Gaddafi regime tried to reassure the United States.
After the 2011 Arab Spring and the fall of Gaddafi, Sabha descended into chaos and anarchy. In recent years, the city has been under the control of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Hifter, who has fought for control of Libya against the Tripoli government. Chadian rebels have also had a presence in the southern city in recent years.