LONDON — Libya is sitting on a stockpile of almost 200 barrels of uranium despite agreeing in 2003 to dismantle its nuclear program, the Daily Telegraph has learned.
The revelation that Libya has not complied with the international agreement to get rid of its supply of uranium will be particularly embarrassing for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya involving the possible construction of a nuclear reactor for civilian purposes.
The uranium, in the form of 1,000 tons of yellowcake ore, is being stored at a military base at the desert town of Sabha. Nuclear experts with knowledge of the stockpile estimate its value at about $400 million.
Uranium is used to run nuclear-power stations, but it can also be enriched to make nuclear weapons.
The Sabha base was linked with Libya’s nuclear-weapons program in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2004. The base, some of which is thought to be underground, was also purported to have been a chemical weapons facility.
After Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi officially abandoned Libya’s nuclear-weapons program in December 2003 in return for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions, the IAEA was supposed to oversee the country’s disposal of its uranium.
A source close to the situation said Col. Gadhafi “has gone through the pro forma process with the IAEA, but he has delayed and delayed. He wants to use the uranium as a bargaining chip to get a reactor.”
Nuclear experts consider it unlikely that Col. Gadhafi will be allowed to have a nuclear reactor, even if it is used for civilian purposes, because of fears that Libya could use the technology to restart its military nuclear program.
The United States, Britain and other member states of the IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, do not think Libya should be given nuclear know-how, sources said, and are likely to block France’s attempt to strike a nuclear deal with Col. Gadhafi.
Questions might also be asked about how Libya came to possess the uranium in the first place. Industry insiders think it was mined in Niger and acquired by Libya while it was under international sanctions.
A spokesman for Areva said discussions between France and Libya were “more political and not at this time commercial.” However, he added that some talks between Areva and the Libyan government had taken place.
Britain’s official position on whether Libya should be able to build civil nuclear reactors is not clear.
Business people operating in the nuclear world are increasingly dealing with companies and authorities once firmly on the blacklist of places where nuclear technology should not be allowed.
This follows a tacit agreement among Western governments that nuclear expertise should be shared as one of the ways to bring down carbon emissions from other fuels.