A lack of uranium ore in Libya raises nuclear safety concerns

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

A Libyan militia later said its forces found the material, but analysts said its disappearance sparked fears it was taken on behalf of a country aiming to develop nuclear weapons.

The UN nuclear watchdog said Thursday its inspectors found 10 barrels of uranium missing from a storage facility in Libya, a country largely under militia control. Work is underway to “clarify the circumstances surrounding the removal of the nuclear material and its current location.”

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

The IAEA, the UN nuclear control agency, has not confirmed whether these are the missing drums.

Scott Roecker, vice president of nuclear materials safety at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a US-based nonprofit, said that to his knowledge, this is by far the largest amount of uranium ore ever lost.

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

He said a major concern was that it might have been stolen on behalf of a country with an as yet undisclosed nuclear program, but that he “wouldn’t rule out Iran and North Korea” as potential buyers.

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

Al Mahgoub claimed the barrels were likely stolen by a “Chadian rebel group” who may have imagined the guns and ammunition were in the warehouse but then left them in the desert when they realized they had no use for them.

Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert and a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the camp, which the UN body did not name, was likely in the central Sabha region.

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

Al Mahgoub accused the IAEA of failing to provide protective equipment he promised in 2020 for guards at the site to protect them from radiation damage. He claimed this meant the guards would have to position themselves far from the warehouse.

He also said they feared health problems such as “paralysis and infertility”. However, Roecker said protective gear is not required for people working near Uranerz.

Lacher said forces from the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary organization backing Haftar, are stationed at two locations near the repository, which contains uranium used in the era of Muammer Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator at a NATO-backed Killed in popular uprising, was bought in 2011.

Uranium ore cannot be used directly for energy production or weapon production, but must first go through an enrichment process.

Gaddafi once had the goal of making nuclear weapons, for which he bought supplies of uranium from abroad for what is said to be a very early program.

But in 2003, as part of a reconciliation deal with the West after the US invasion of Iraq, he said he would abandon his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program and opened secret facilities to inspection.

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

https://www.ft.com/content/9a3f913c-2d01-4eca-a4eb-58e4b346baac A lack of uranium ore in Libya raises nuclear safety concerns

Brian Ashcraft

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