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Missing uranium ore in Libya raises nuclear security fears

Some 2.5 tonnes of uranium ore went missing in Libya, believed to be the largest quantity ever mislaid, raising concerns over the security of nuclear feedstock in the lawless north African country.

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

The UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday its inspectors had found that 10 drums containing uranium had gone missing from a storage site in Libya, a country largely under the control of militias. It said it would work “to clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear material and its current location”.

Khaled al Mahgoub, chief of the media unit at the self-styled Libyan National Army militia, later said on Facebook that the missing barrels were found 5 km from the warehouse where uranium had been stored. He showed footage of blue barrels in a desert location.

The IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, has not confirmed whether these were the missing drums.

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

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

He said a major concern was that it might have been stolen on behalf of a country with an as yet unknown nuclear programme, 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” were 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 had probably been stolen by a “Chadian rebel group” who may have imagined there were weapons and ammunition in the storehouse, but then abandoned them in the desert when they found they had no use for them.

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

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

Al Mahgoub blamed the IAEA for failing to provide protective gear he said it promised in 2020 for guards at the site to shield them from harm from radiation. He claimed this meant 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 forces from Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary organisation that supports Haftar, were stationed at two locations near the storage facility, which contains uranium purchased in the era of Muammer Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator who was killed in a Nato-backed popular uprising in 2011.

Uranium ore is not immediately useful for energy production or for making weapons, but must first go through an enrichment process.

Gaddafi once aimed to produce nuclear weapons, for which he bought uranium stocks from abroad for what was said to be a very early-stage programme.

But in 2003, as part of a reconciliation deal with the west after the US invasion of Iraq, he said he was relinquishing his programme to produce nuclear, chemical and biological arms, and threw open secret facilities for inspection.

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

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