Libyan Uranium Stocks Flagged for IAEA

Kelsey Davenport

An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team planned to visit Libya in December to verify the country’s stockpile of uranium yellowcake, a UN official reported to the Security Council.

Tarek Mitri, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, told the Security Council on Dec. 9 that he received information from the Libyan government indicating that 6,400 barrels of uranium yellowcake are being stored at a former military facility in the south under the control of an army battalion. He said an IAEA inspection team was to visit the site in December to verify the “conditions of storage” and size of the stockpile.

The IAEA did not respond to a request for confirmation that the visit took place. A team from the agency last visited the site in 2011.

The announcement of the IAEA visit came a month after Russia expressed concern over the security of the Libyan yellowcake. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, told Russian news outlets Nov. 4 that he “mentioned the problem” of security for the stockpile of yellowcake during Security Council consultations and requested that the body ask Libya to take “practical steps to remedy the situation.”

Rwanda’s ambassador to the UN, Eugene-Richard Gasana, who chairs the Security Council committee that oversees sanctions imposed on Libya, told the Security Council on Dec. 9 that a UN panel of experts concluded that the yellowcake “posed no significant security risk” because it would require “extensive processing” before it could be used for civil or weapons purposes. The panel is charged with overseeing the implementation of sanctions imposed on Libya in connection with the civil war in February 2011 under UN Security Council Resolution 1970.

Yellowcake, which is concentrated uranium ore, represents an early step in the process of creating fuel for power reactors or nuclear weapons. Once natural uranium ore is mined, it undergoes a milling process to turn it into yellowcake, which then must be processed into a gaseous form, uranium hexafluoride, before it can be enriched.

Under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Libya ratified in 1975, the country is prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi covertly pursued a nuclear weapons program that began in the 1970s and lasted until 2003. In December of that year, Libya agreed to dismantle its covert nuclear weapons facilities and disclose information about its other programs for nonconventional weapons. As part of that agreement, Libya released information about the importation of 2,263 metric tons of uranium yellowcake from Niger between 1978 and 1981. Of that amount, only 1,000 metric tons were declared to the IAEA.

The remainder was for use in covert uranium-enrichment activities. Yellowcake stockpiles must be declared if a state has an additional protocol as part of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. An additional protocol expands the scope and access that the agency has to a state’s nuclear facilities.

Although the last of Libya’s enriched uranium was removed in 2009, the stockpiles of yellowcake remained in the country.