DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Around 2.5 tons of natural uranium stockpiled at a site in war-torn Libya has gone missing, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Thursday, raising safety and proliferation concerns.
Natural uranium cannot be used immediately for power generation or bomb fuel, as the enrichment process usually requires the metal to be turned into a gas and later spun in centrifuges to achieve the required concentrations.
However, experts say that every tonne of natural uranium — if extracted by a group with the technological means and resources — can be refined into 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) of weapons-grade material over time. 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.
However, many details of the IAEA statement were kept secret.
On Tuesday, safety agency inspectors “found that 10 barrels containing about 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present at a location in Libya state as previously reported,” the IAEA said. “Further activities are being conducted by the Agency to clarify the circumstances surrounding the removal of the core material and its current location.”
Reuters was the first to report the IAEA warning about the missing Libyan uranium, saying the IAEA had told members that reaching the site, which is not under the government’s control, would require “complex logistics”.
The IAEA declined to provide further details on the missing uranium. However, the admission that the uranium went to a “previously declared location” limits the possibilities.
One of those declared places is Sabha, about 660 kilometers (410 miles) southeast of Libya’s capital Tripoli, in the country’s lawless southern Saharan reaches. There, Libya under dictator Muammar Gaddafi stored thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium for a once-planned uranium conversion plant that was never built in its decades-long secret weapons program.
Libyan stockpiles are estimated to be around 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who announced his nascent 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, what was left was the yellowcake, of which the UN in 2013 estimated about 6,400 barrels were stored at Sabha. American officials had feared that Iran might try to buy the uranium from Libya, something Gaddafi’s top civilian nuclear official was trying to reassure the US about, according to a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
“Emphasizing that Libya viewed the issue primarily as a commercial one, (the official) noted that uranium yellowcake prices had risen in the world market and that Libya wanted to maximize its profits by properly selling its stockpile terminate,” Official Ambassador Gene A. Cretz wrote.
But in the 2011 Arab Spring, rebels overthrew Gaddafi and eventually killed him. Sabha became increasingly lawless as African migrants transited through Libya and said some were sold into slavery 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 during the Gaddafi era, is fighting for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government.
A spokesman for Hifter declined to answer questions from The Associated Press. Chadian rebels have also been present in the southern city in recent years.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo contributed to this report.
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