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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
IAEA: Questions Remain About Libya

Paul Kerr


A May 28 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei fills in some key missing details about Libya’s now-dismantled nuclear weapons program, while acknowledging that holes remain in the account. Additionally, Tripoli has disclosed that some materials it ordered from foreign sources remain unaccounted for, prompting concerns in Washington that third parties may have acquired them.

ElBaradei told the agency’s Board of Governors June 14 that outstanding questions about Libya’s program include the origin of nuclear material Libya imported in 2000 and 2001, as well as the source of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and low-enriched uranium (LEU) contamination on Libyan gas centrifuge equipment.

The report marked ElBaradei’s second account of the program since Tripoli’s December 2003 announcement that it would give up its nuclear, chemical, and longer-range missile programs. The latest report notes that Libya has “provided prompt, unhindered access to all locations requested by the [a]gency and to all relevant equipment and material declared to be in Libya,” but adds that Libya has not always been able to provide adequate documentation for its account of its nuclear activities. IAEA inspectors have visited multiple sites to verify the absence of weapons activities and continue to conduct inspections, the report says.

ElBaradei’s first report in February sketched the outlines of Libya’s clandestine uranium- enrichment program, which had been underway since the early 1980s. (See ACT, April 2004.) The program planned to use thousands of gas centrifuges, which spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds to increase the concentration of weapons-grade uranium-235. The technology can be used to produce LEU to fuel civilian nuclear energy reactors, but it can also be used to produce HEU for weapons. As of December, Libya had centrifuge components and some complete centrifuges, but did not possess an operating enrichment facility.

Libya received considerable foreign assistance for its nuclear program, especially from a clandestine procurement network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Beginning in 1997, this network supplied Tripoli with centrifuges and components based on a basic design known as the L-1 and, beginning in 2000, a more advanced design known as the L-2.

Despite apparent good-faith efforts, the Libyans and foreign governments have had trouble accounting for Libya’s nuclear wares.

For example, the Bush administration has touted Italy’s October 2003 seizure of a shipment of centrifuge components en route to Libya with contributing to Tripoli’s disarmament decision and an indication of the success of Western intelligence efforts. But IAEA officials said another container of advanced L-2 components onboard the same ship “escaped the attention” of the authorities that searched the ship. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Furthermore, an IAEA official told Arms Control Today June 21 that Libyan officials have said that they had not received some of the centrifuge components that they ordered. This means that Libyan officials were duped by Khan’s suppliers, the materials were “returned to sender,” or a third party has them, a Department of State official said June 18, adding that the matter is still being investigated.

In another development, IAEA inspectors found that some of both the more basic and more advanced Libyan centrifuges had been “contaminated” with traces of HEU and LEU. Both types of enriched uranium were found in a test facility for the L-1 centrifuges. The two L-2 centrifuges, along with related components, had traces of HEU. The agency is still trying to identify the exact source of the material, but the report suggests that Libya did not attempt to test centrifuges with nuclear material, which might have indicated a more advanced program. Rather, it suggests that the components were already contaminated when Libya received them.

The report shed further light on Tripoli’s attempts to develop the capability to convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride. Libya began its attempts to acquire a uranium-conversion facility “no later than 1981” and ordered a “modular” conversion facility from an unnamed “Far Eastern country” in 1984. Components for the facility began arriving two years later. Libya conducted “small scale” uranium-conversion experiments between 1983 and 1989, as well as “limited” experiments again after 1994. But none of these tests were carried out in a full-scale conversion facility and none of the experiments produced uranium hexafluoride.

The IAEA has said Libya acquired its nuclear material in two phases. Libya exported uranium in 1985 to an unnamed “nuclear-weapon state,” which then processed it and shipped the resulting products, including uranium hexafluoride, back to Libya later that year. Libya used Khan’s network to acquire two additional shipments of uranium hexafluoride in September 2000 and February 2001. The IAEA is still trying to determine the origin of that material.

A report earlier this year from Malaysia’s inspector general of police stated that, according to U.S. and British intelligence officials, uranium hexafluoride was shipped from Pakistan to Libya in 2001. Additionally, the IAEA has “uncorroborated information,” but no “proof,” that North Korea may have supplied Libya with nuclear material, the agency official said.

The IAEA board adopted a resolution in March finding that Libya’s past clandestine nuclear activities “constituted non-compliance” with its IAEA safeguards agreement but also praising Libya’s subsequent cooperation and dismantlement efforts. Because of these efforts, the resolution requested that ElBaradei report Libya’s noncompliance to the UN Security Council “for information purposes only.” Although the council had the option of taking action against Tripoli, a security council president’s statement instead praised Libya’s cooperation in an April resolution. The United States, in cooperation with the United Kingdom and Russia, has removed the most important components of Libya’s nuclear weapons program.