DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Some 2.5 tons of natural uranium stored at a site in war-torn Libya has gone missing, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Thursday, raising concerns over security and proliferation.
Natural uranium cannot be used immediately for energy production or bomb fuel because the enrichment process usually requires the metal to be converted to a gas and later spun in centrifuges to reach the required levels.
However, each ton of natural uranium — if obtained by a group with the technological means and means — can be refined over time into 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) of weapon-suitable material, experts say. That makes finding the missing metal important for nonproliferation experts.
In a statement, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said its director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, informed member states about the missing uranium on Wednesday.
However, the IAEA statement remained closed on many details.
On Tuesday, safeguards inspectors found that 10 barrels containing about 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present, as previously stated at a site in the state of Libya, the IAEA said. “Further activities will be conducted by the agency to clarify the circumstances of the disposal of the nuclear material and its current location.”
Reuters first reported on the IAEA warning about the missing Libyan uranium, saying the IAEA told members that reaching the site not under government control required “complex logistics”.
The IAEA declined to provide more details about the missing uranium. However, the acknowledgment that the uranium disappeared at a “previously specified location” narrows the possibilities.
One such stated location is Sabha, some 660 kilometers (410 mi) southeast of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in the lawless southern reaches of the Sahara desert. There, under dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya stockpiled thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium for a once-planned uranium conversion facility that was never built in its decades-long covert weapons program.
Estimates put Libya’s stockpile at some 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who announced his burgeoning 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, the yellowcake was left behind, with the UN estimating in 2013 that about 6,400 barrels of it were stockpiled in Sabha. US officials feared Iran might try to buy the uranium from Libya, something Gaddafi’s top civilian nuclear official tried to reassure the US about, according to a 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
Emphasizing that Libya viewed the issue as primarily a commercial one, (the official) noted that prices for uranium yellowcake in the world market had risen and that Libya wanted to maximize its profits by timing the sale of its supply well, as-Ambassador Gene A. Cretz wrote.
But during the 2011 Arab Spring, rebels overthrew Qadhafi and eventually killed him. Sabha grew increasingly lawless, with African migrants crossing Libya saying some had been sold as slaves 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 under Gaddafi.has struggled for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government.
A Hifter spokesperson declined to answer questions from The Associated Press. Chadian rebels have also had a presence in the southern city in recent years.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffrey in Cairo contributed to this report.