Recently, ten drums (about 2.5 tons) of Muammar Ghadaffi’s lightly processed uranium went missing in Libya. On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations (UN) nuclear watchdog reported that roughly 2.5 tons of natural uranium went missing from a Libyan site not under government control. The security situation in the region made inspections difficult for the IAEA last year.

In a report to the UN, the IAEA said that “the loss of knowledge about the present location of nuclear material may present a radiological risk, as well as nuclear security concerns.” Uranium is a radioactive, silvery metal used to produce nuclear fuel used to generate electricity in nuclear power stations. It is a key component of atomic nuclear bombs and weapons. In its pure form, uranium is a silver-coloured heavy metal nearly twice as dense as lead. The missing uranium was in a concentrate called the ‘yellow cake’- this means it was in an intermediate step in the nuclear processing stage and was underdeveloped.

In 1969 when Muammar Ghadaffi seized power from King Idris to become Libya’s president, he pursued a nuclear weapon mission- to counter Israel’s nuclear program. Subsequently, he purchased more than 2,000 tons of lightly processed uranium from Niger. He began to develop nuclear weapons with the help of illicit nuclear proliferation networks and various black market sources. But in December 2003, after a series of diplomatic talks with the United States, Liberia agreed to roll back the nuclear program.

Speaking with Ventures Africa, an anonymous nuclear and economic expert noted that “with the fall of Muammar Ghadaffi’s government and the failure of the United States (US) to replace his government with a democratic system, Libya further fell into the hands of Islamic terrorist network. The missing Uranium was in a region not controlled by the UN-backed government and this incident has terrorism written all over it.” 

The latest report by the New York Post suggests that the missing drums have been found 3 miles away from the storage site, a piece of information that the IAEA has tagged as unverified. According to speculations by Khaled Mahjoub, a spokesperson for the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), a group of separatist fighters from Chad had raided the warehouse and stolen the barrels, hoping they might contain weapons or ammunition, but had subsequently ditched them.

“Asides from big countries that can produce nuclear weapons and probably other big terror groups, small militias most time don’t have what it takes to produce a nuclear weapon from radioactive elements. The most such groups can produce from a ‘yellow cake’ is dirty bombs from those radioactive elements,” our anonymous expert said. “I believe the people who moved the drums eventually abandoned them either because they cannot handle radioactive elements or they didn’t want the heat from NATO and other allied nation forces.” 

Everyone should be worried. Nuclear bombs and dirty bombs are created with radioactive elements found in uranium. But the former is a million times more lethal than the latter. As of the time of writing, the IAEA had not come out to confirm whether the drums have been found or not. But if the metal remains at large, it could spell doom for the lives of millions of people globally. This is why the news is causing a stir.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an intergovernmental organisation that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons. It is an autonomous organisation within the United Nations (UN).

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