Missing uranium ore in Libya raises nuclear safety fears

About 2.5 tons of uranium ore went missing in Libya, believed to be the largest amount ever lost, raising concerns about the safety of nuclear resources in the lawless North African country.

A Libyan militia later said its troops had located the material, but analysts said its disappearance raised fears it had been taken on behalf of a country seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog said Thursday its inspectors had discovered 10 barrels of uranium had disappeared from a storage facility in Libya, a country largely under the control of militias. It said it would work “to clarify the circumstances of the disposal of the nuclear material and its current location”.

Khaled al Mahgoub, head of the media unit of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army militia, later said on Facebook that the missing barrels were found 5 km from the uranium warehouse. He showed images of blue barrels in a desert location.

The IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has not confirmed whether these were the missing barrels.

Scott Roecker, vice president of nuclear material security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a US-based nonprofit organization, said that to his knowledge, this was by far the largest amount of uranium ore ever gone missing.

“There is no radiation risk,” he said. “But the concern is, who would want to acquire material that is raw material for nuclear weapons?”

He said it was of great concern that it might have been stolen on behalf of a country with an as yet unknown nuclear program, but that he “would not rule out Iran and North Korea” as potential buyers.

The IAEA had told members in a confidential statement that it would take “complex logistics” to reach the site, which is not under the control of the Tripoli government, Reuters news agency reported Wednesday.

Al Mahgoub claimed that the barrels were likely stolen by a “Chadian rebel group” who may have imagined there were weapons and ammunition in the cache, but then left them in the desert when they found they could not make use of them.

Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert and senior associate at Germany’s Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the storage facility, which the UN body did not name, was likely located in the central region of Sabha.

“Since the beginning of 2019, this area has been under Haftar, who has strengthened his control over time,” Lacher said, referring to Libyan National Army militia chief Khalifa Haftar.

Al Mahgoub blamed the IAEA for not providing protective equipment he said he promised in 2020 to guards at the site to protect them from radiation damage. He claimed that this meant that the guards had to position themselves far from the warehouse.

He also said they feared health problems such as “paralysis and infertility”. However, Roecker said no protective gear was needed for people working near uranium ore.

Lacher said troops from the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary organization that supports Haftar, were stationed at two sites near the storage facility, which contains uranium purchased in the era of Muammer Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator who was killed in a the NATO-backed popular uprising in 2011.

Uranium ore is not directly usable for energy production or for making weapons, but must first undergo an enrichment process.

Gaddafi once intended to produce nuclear weapons, buying uranium supplies from abroad for what was reportedly a very early stage program.

But in 2003, as part of a reconciliation deal with the west after the US invasion of Iraq, he said he was abandoning his program to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and opened classified facilities for inspection.

Inspectors removed the last of the enriched uranium from Libya by 2009, but stockpiles of unenriched uranium ore remained.

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