Over two tons of radioactive uranium, previously reported missing in southern Libya, has been found near a warehouse, according to military officials. The discovery comes after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, raised nuclear safety concerns earlier this week when it reported 2.5 tons of uranium missing from an unspecified site in the war-torn country. The uranium’s disappearance posed a potential nuclear security threat, highlighting the ongoing instability in Libya.
Khaled Mahjoub, a spokesperson for the Libyan National Army (LNA), stated on Thursday that 10 barrels of uranium had been recovered. However, a video shared by Mahjoub showed workers counting 18 containers. While the blue-painted drums in the video appeared to have batch numbers, the footage did not show the barrels being opened.
More than 2 tons of ‘missing’ uranium found in Libya after sparking nuclear fears https://t.co/jTHhW9YJ0P pic.twitter.com/ZWDsC0RyGu
— New York Post (@nypost) March 16, 2023
In a confidential statement to member states seen by Reuters, the IAEA said that the facility was located in an area not under the control of the Government of National Unity in Tripoli and required “complex logistics” to access it. Mahjoub revealed that the site was a warehouse near the Chad border, last visited by the IAEA in 2020 and sealed with red wax. The barrels were found abandoned about three miles from the storage facility.
Mahjoub speculated that a group of separatist fighters from Chad had raided the warehouse, stealing the barrels assuming they contained weapons or ammunition. They subsequently abandoned the barrels when they realized their mistake. The IAEA announced that it was aware of media reports regarding the uranium’s discovery and was working to verify the information.
The missing uranium, while not immediately usable to create a nuclear bomb, could be refined into weapons-grade material by a group with the necessary expertise and equipment. Each ton of the material could be refined into 12 pounds of weapons-grade uranium using centrifuges.
Libya remains a divided nation, with control split between the internationally recognized government in the capital, Tripoli, led by Chairman of the Presidential Council of the State of Libya Mohamed al-Menfi, and the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk. The LNA, commanded by warlord Khalifa Haftar, battled rival western forces until 2020 when a ceasefire was declared.
The IAEA had previously stated that the missing uranium posed “little radiation hazard, but it requires safe handling,” emphasizing the importance of knowing the material’s location to mitigate radiological risks and nuclear security concerns. Libya has struggled to achieve peace or stability since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. The country has been divided between warring factions in the east and west since 2014.
As the IAEA works to verify the authenticity of the recovered barrels, the incident serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing security challenges facing Libya and the region. Moreover, the risk of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands underscores the need for continued international vigilance and cooperation in ensuring nuclear safety and security.