Libyan WMD Materials Not Locked Down

(Aug. 24) -A Libyan opposition fighter burns a poster of dictator Muammar Qadhafi on Wednesday in the capital city of Tripoli. Concerns remain about ensuring the security of potential WMD materials in the country as the regime collapses (Patrick Baz/Getty Images).
(Aug. 24) -A Libyan opposition fighter burns a poster of dictator Muammar Qadhafi on Wednesday in the capital city of Tripoli. Concerns remain about ensuring the security of potential WMD materials in the country as the regime collapses (Patrick Baz/Getty Images).

The vestiges of the Libyan government's abandoned WMD programs -- some mustard blister agent and yellowcake uranium -- have yet to be secured by the rebel forces that swept into Tripoli this week and sent longtime dictator Muammar Qadhafi into hiding, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Aug. 23).

A primary concern in Washington is that cornered Libyan regime forces could attempt to use unconventional materials in a last-ditch effort to avoid defeat. Qadhafi soldiers are still mounting attacks from portions of Tripoli and other Libyan cities that have yet to come under rebel control. Qadhafi also continues to elude capture and has urged his loyalsists to continue fighting.

Counterterrorism officials are also concerned that chaos from the fighting and a potential subsequent leadership vacuum in the country could allow extremists or black marketeers to acquire the blister agent.

When fighting broke out in February, the Tripoli government still held a reported 9.5 metric tons of deteriorating blister agent that it had been destroying as required by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tripoli also possesses a larger inventory of chemical-weapon precursor materials. The regime years earlier eliminated thousands of empty aerial munitions that could have been used to disperse the toxic chemical in an air attack.

Regime forces continue to maintain hold of the chemical and nuclear materials, according to sources from the U.S. government and its partners. The question is whether they will look to employ or relocate the materials as their situation becomes more dire.

British Embassy spokesman Hetty Crist said the blister agent at the present time was "under guard in secure and remote locations" and could not readily be used in an attack.

The blister agent and in excess of 1,300 tons of precursor materials are located inside a concrete bunker several hundred miles to the south of Tripoli, an unidentified U.S. official said. The material is held in casks that in 2006 displayed indications of degrading, the official said.

Libya's sole nuclear reactor at Tajoura holds approximately 500 to 900 metric tons of unrefined yellowcake uranium. The Libyan government surrendered all of its nuclear weapons technology and weapon-grade uranium in a process that ended in 2009. The raw uranium is considered a lower security risk by U.S. officials as it would need large-scale process and enrichment in order to be used to power a bomb. Still, the material could be an attractive target to individuals or rogue nations with the wherewithal to build a nuclear explosive, AP reported.

The U.S. State Department has dispatched specialists to Libya to meet with opposition officials and other North African governments on continuing to adhere to international nonproliferation pacts and increasing the security at border crossings to stem the feared flow of arms out of Libya.

The Obama administration is taking steps to make certain that "the governing forces in Libya have full command and control of any WMD or any security assets that the state might have had," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday.

A number of U.S. officials are worried NATO might not have adequate personnel in Libya to ensure the sensitive substances are not left vulnerable if regime troops abandon their stations. The western alliance made the decision early on in the conflict not to deploy troops on the ground.

Global Green USA chemical weapons expert Paul Walker said he had no knowledge of any attempts to steal or transfer the chemical weapons materials. "Any major action such as trucks pulling up, or major troop movements, that would be known pretty quickly and action such as a NATO air strike could be taken fairly quickly," he said (Dozier/Birch, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Aug. 23).

Discussing the potential for desperate Qadhafi troops to mount an unconventional attack, British Foreign Secretary William Hague in an interview with the BBC said, "You can't anticipate everything the Qadhafi regime will do. They are a vicious regime. They are in their death throes. There are people still out there. That's why we can't rule out any of those things," the London Telegraph reported (Harding/Kirkup, LondonTelegraph, Aug. 23).

Even though Qadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons material and technology years ago, "nuclear security concerns still linger," according to one-time International Atomic Energy safeguards chief Olli Heinonen (see GSN, March 1).

Heinonen wrote in an Internet post that the Tajoura nuclear reactor still holds large amounts of low-enriched uranium, radioisotopes and radioactive waste -- materials that could be used to build a radiological "dirty bomb" that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material across a wide area, Reuters reported.

"While we can be thankful that the highly enriched uranium stocks are no longer in Libya, the remaining material in Tajoura could, if it ended up in the wrong hands, be used as ingredients for dirty bombs," he said.

"The situation at Tajoura today is unclear," the ex-IAEA official added.

Libyan opposition leaders on the Transitional National Council must not neglect the defenses of the radioactive sources at the reactor, he said. When a new government is in place, "it should assure the world that it accepts its responsibility and will take the necessary steps to secure these potentially dangerous radioactive sources," Heinonen wrote (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Aug. 24).

Meanwhile, Qadhafi forces launched multiple Scud missiles at the opposition-held city of Misrata on Tuesday, the Misrata rebel council said in a statement carried by al-Jazeera. The statement said the short-range ballistic missiles were launched from Qadhafi's home village of Sirte, according to the Los Angeles Times (Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 23).

August 24, 2011
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The vestiges of the Libyan government's abandoned WMD programs -- some mustard blister agent and yellowcake uranium -- have yet to be secured by the rebel forces that swept into Tripoli this week and sent longtime dictator Muammar Qadhafi into hiding, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Aug. 23).

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