Eastern Libyan forces have located 10 drums of uranium declared missing by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They were found near the warehouse from which they disappeared in southern Libya. Khaled Mahjoub, head of a media unit for the Libyan National Army (LNA), the main military force in eastern Libya, said in a statement that the 10 missing barrels had been recovered, although a separate video he sent showed workers counting 18 barrels.

The IAEA had said earlier in a confidential statement to member states seen by Reuters that it had detected the missing uranium during a recent inspection of an unnamed site in Libya. The inspection had postponed in 2022 because of the security situation.

According to the one-page confidential statement by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, IAEA inspectors "found that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of UOC (uranium ore concentrate) previously declared by (Libya) … as being stored at that location were not present at the location." It added: "The loss of knowledge about the present location of nuclear material may present a radiological risk, as well as nuclear security concerns," noting that reaching the site required "complex logistics".

In 2003 Libya under then-leader Muammar Gaddafi renounced its nuclear weapons programme, which had obtained centrifuges that can enrich uranium as well as design information for a nuclear bomb, although little progress towards a bomb had been made.

Mahjoub said the site was a warehouse towards the border with Chad that the IAEA had visited in 2020 and sealed with red wax. The barrels were found some 5km from the warehouse. He suggested that a group from Chad may have raided the warehouse and taken the barrels expecting to find weapons or ammunition, but had abandoned them.

Libya has been in chaos since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising ousted Gaddafi. Libya collapsed into civil war following the US-NATO bombing of the country. Since 2014, political control has been split between rival eastern and western factions, with the last major bout of conflict ending in 2020. The LNA, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, was at war with western forces from 2014-20 and launched an assault on Tripoli in 2019 to try to take control of the government installed there. An interim government, put in place in early 2021 through a UN-backed peace plan, was only supposed to remain in place until an election scheduled for December of that year that has still not been held. The government’s legitimacy is now also disputed. Neither the interim government nor the administration in the east is in control of the south, where the uranium was warehoused.

IAEA said it was aware of media reports that the material had been found and was working to verify the situation. IAEA said the uranium ore concentrate had been at a site not under government control requiring complex logistics to reach. It said the missing uranium could represent a radiological and nuclear security concern.

Image: Inspection of missing drums said to contain uranium ore (courtesy of BBC)