UN nuclear observer. 2.5 tons of uranium disappeared in Libya

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — About 2.5 tons of natural uranium stored in war-torn Libya has disappeared, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Thursday, raising concerns about security and nuclear proliferation.

Natural uranium cannot be used immediately for power generation or bomb fuel, as the enrichment process usually requires turning the metal into a gas and then spinning it in centrifuges to achieve the required levels.

However, each ton of natural uranium, if acquired by a group with the technology and resources, could be refined to 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) of weapons-grade material over time, experts say. That makes missing metal detection important to non-proliferation experts.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that its director-general, Raffaele Mariano Grossi, informed member states about the missing uranium on Wednesday.

The IAEA statement remained tight-lipped, albeit on many details.

On Tuesday, “Agency safety inspectors found 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate, as previously declared, in the Libyan province,” the IAEA said. “Further action will be taken by the agency to determine the circumstances surrounding the disposal of the nuclear material and its current location.”

Reuters first reported the IAEA’s warning about Libya’s missing uranium, saying the IAEA told members that reaching the site, which is not under government control, required “sophisticated logistics.”

The IAEA declined to provide more details on the missing uranium. However, his admission that the uranium has disappeared “at a previously announced site” narrows the possibilities.

One such declared location is Sabah, located about 660 kilometers (410 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in the country’s lawless southern Sahara desert. There, under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya stored thousands of barrels of so-called yellow-cake uranium for a once-planned uranium conversion facility that was never built in his decades-long secret weapons program.

Libya’s reserves are estimated at about 1,000 metric tons of yellow-pie uranium under Gaddafi, who announced his fledgling nuclear weapons program to the world after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

While inspectors removed the last of the enriched uranium from Libya in 2009, yellowcake remained after the UN estimated in 2013 that about 6,400 barrels of it were stored in the Sabha. US officials were concerned that Iran might try to buy uranium from Libya, which Gaddafi’s top nuclear official tried to reassure the US about, according to a 2009 WikiLeaks diplomatic cable.

“Stressing that Libya views the issue primarily as a commercial one, (the official) noted that global uranium yellowcake prices are rising and that Libya wants to maximize its profits by timing the sale of its stockpile,” Ambassador Jean A. Krets wrote:

But in the Arab Spring of 2011, rebels overthrew Gaddafi and eventually killed him. Sabah has become increasingly illegal as African migrants cross into Libya, saying some have been sold into slavery in the city, the United Nations reports.

In recent years, Sabah has largely been 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 while in exile under Gaddafi, is fighting for control of Libya against the government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for Hifter did not return several requests for comment from The Associated Press. Chadian rebel forces have also had a presence in the southern city in recent years.


Associated Press writers Sammy Magdi and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo contributed to this report.


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