U.N. urges Libya to sell off cache of ‘yellowcake’ uranium


U.N. experts are urging Libya to get rid of a large cache of “yellowcake” uranium because the warehouse where it is being kept is neither safe nor secure enough for long-term storage, the U.N. envoy to Libya said Thursday.

Inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed an inspection of the Tajura nuclear facility in Tripoli and a warehouse in Sabha that stores yellowcake, a concentrated uranium powder, on Dec. 9, U.N. special envoy to Libya Ian Martin told the Security Council.

“In an initial debriefing the IAEA conveyed its overall conclusion that none of the previously reported nuclear materials in either facility had gone missing,” Martin told the 15-nation council via video-link from Tripoli.

Former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had a clandestine nuclear weapons program, which he abandoned in December 2003. IAEA and U.S. experts verified at the time that the program was fully dismantled.

While there appears to be no immediate health or radiation risk posed by the uranium, Martin said, the IAEA is encouraging Libya to sell and transfer the 6,400 barrels of yellowcake out of the country because the barrels are deteriorating and the site is not secure enough.

“The present safety and security measures at the facility are not deemed sufficient longer-term,” Martin said. “There appears, however, to be no risk of proliferation given the weight and state of the barrels.”

Yellowcake uranium, which is not highly radioactive, cannot be used for nuclear weapons unless processed and purified.

Martin also confirmed a U.S. finding from last month that Libya’s missing stocks of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – “man portable air defense systems” or MANPADS - appear to be still in the country.

“While the focus of international concern continues to be the potential proliferation of MANPADs, as yet there seems to be little evidence of such weapons systems appearing in neighboring countries,” he said.

“Visits at weapon storage sites and brigades throughout Libya suggest that most looted arms may be held by revolutionary brigades or local militias within a limited distance from the looted sites, thereby rendering it primarily a national Libyan arms control and disarmament concern,” Martin said.

He added that the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) had agreed with Libya's Defence Ministry to set up a task force on MANPADS to “facilitate a country-wide mapping of weapons and storage sites and to coordinate the identification, collection and disabling efforts.”

The U.N. mission is also working to register MANPADS held by revolutionary brigades, Martin said.

Separately, the United States is working with Libya's Defense Ministry to create an inventory and destroy superfluous conventional weapons around in Libya, he said.

In the chaotic fighting to end Qaddafi’s rule, local militias trying to overthrow him raided arms depots and took the weapons for themselves.

The militias are largely loyal to the Western-backed government now in power, but there are questions over how securely they are storing the weapons.

Security experts have said that MANPADS could be acquired by militants or smugglers and taken across Libya's porous southern borders into neighboring Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Martin also said that the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was making progress in accounting for chemical weapons and materials found at two previously undeclared sites in Libya.

He said that Libya’s government submitted to the OPCW in late November a detailed declaration of the materials, which were transferred to the officially declared storage site. The OPCW plans to return in mid-January to work with the government on safe storage for the materials.