The United Nations nuclear watchdog has revealed that 2½ tons of uranium have gone missing in Libya, prompting concerns about nuclear security.
Natural uranium cannot be used immediately for energy production or bomb fuel because the enrichment process usually requires the metal to be converted into gas before being spun in centrifuges to reach the necessary levels.
However, each ton of natural uranium can be refined to 12lb of weapons-grade material over time, making the recovery of the missing metal important for non-proliferation experts.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Wednesday that its director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, informed member states about the missing uranium.
According to the IAEA, on Tuesday, its inspectors found that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium were missing from a location in the state of Libya that had been previously declared.
The agency said it would conduct further activities to clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear material and its current location.
Reuters reported that reaching the site, which is not under government control, requires complex logistics.
Libya, under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, stored thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium in Sabha, 410 miles southeast of Libya’s capital Tripoli, for a once-planned conversion facility that was never built in his decades-long secret weapons programme.
Estimates put the Libyan stockpile at 1,000 metric tons of yellowcake uranium under Gaddafi, who declared his nascent nuclear weapons programme to the world in 2003.
While inspectors removed the last of the enriched uranium from Libya in 2009, the yellowcake remained behind, with the UN estimating in 2013 that 6,400 barrels were stored at Sabha.
American officials had worried that Iran could try to purchase 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. In recent years, Sabha has largely been under the control of the self-styled Libyan National Army, headed by Khalifa Hifter, who has been battling for control of Libya against a Tripoli-based government. Sabha grew increasingly lawless, with African migrants crossing Libya saying some had been sold as slaves in the city, the UN reported.
The IAEA acknowledged that the missing uranium was from a previously declared site, narrowing down the possibilities.
The agency has not offered more details on the missing uranium. The recovery of the metal is crucial to prevent non-state actors from acquiring weapons-grade material.