Ten drums containing “natural” uranium had disappeared on Tuesday from a site controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency… before being found not far away by the Libyan army. The lost radioactive ore was stored in the form of “yellow cake” at a site not revealed by the IAEA. Uranium containers reported missing in Libya have been found.
Uranium containers reported missing in Libya have been found
How could 2.5 tons of uranium have “disappeared”? This is the delicate question that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have to answer, after reporting on Wednesday the “loss” in Libya of 10 drums of this radioactive ore. For a total weight of 2.5 tons of this ore in its “natural” form.
Through the voice of a general, the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) announced that the containers were found on Thursday not far from the site where they were stored in the region of Sebha. A video shows a man wearing a protective suit with 18 blue containers, all the uranium that was stored at the site. “The situation is under control, the IAEA has been informed,” said General Khaled al-Mahjoub.
He said that after the disappearance of the containers was noted during a visit by IAEA inspectors, “an armed ANL force found them barely five km from the depot towards the Chadian border. He estimated that the containers had been stolen and then abandoned “by a Chadian faction, believing them to be weapons or ammunition.
What is “yellow cake”?
Uranium is a common metal, found in most of the world’s rocks, soil and water. But the disappeared drums contained “yellow cake,” the nickname given to “uranium ore concentrate,” or U3O8. This is the final product after extraction, grinding and chemical treatment of uranium in the immediate vicinity of the mines.
It is a fine powder, which had a yellow-orange color with the old industrial processes. Now, although the name “yellow cake” is still sometimes used, concentrated uranium appears as a fine greenish powder. It is generally packaged in steel drums before being sent to refineries that convert it into nuclear fuel by purification and then enrichment.
Is it a dangerous product?
In its “U3O8” (or UOC) form, uranium ore concentrate is stable. Like all forms of this ore, it is radioactive. At a fairly low level, but enough to have caused concern to the IAEA:
Loss of knowledge about the current location of nuclear material may present a radiological risk, as well as nuclear security concerns
Uranium must be handled with care, and not for too long: direct contact can be dangerous, especially if it is prolonged. This is why protective equipment (gloves, mask, etc.) is necessary. It is also toxic if ingested or inhaled.
Can it be used to make a nuclear bomb?
The nuclear risk is low, but not zero. Yellow cake” is uranium in its “natural” form – in other words, not enriched. It therefore contains less than 1% “fissile” uranium 235. The ore used in nuclear power plants is enriched to contain 3 to 5% uranium 235. The ore that could be used to make a bomb requires a level of uranium 235 greater than 90%.
Even before enrichment, the “yellow cake” must first be refined to be converted into pure uranium dioxide. Clearly, the uranium that disappeared in Libya was, as it was, useless in either case… except to end up in the wrong hands.
These hands were relatively limited in number: no official nuclear power would have ventured to acquire ten drums of questionable uranium. Only a few countries that have unofficially mastered the technology of enrichment for military purposes, such as Iran or North Korea, could have made such use of it. Unless it was used in the form of a “dirty bomb”, with dispersion of the powder in the air in order to intoxicate a population… Hence the “nuclear security problems” pointed out by the IAEA, in an international context marked by, on the one hand, the Russian war in Ukraine with the material support of Tehran and, on the other hand, the repeated tests of North Korean missiles. Iran, which has recently made pledges to the IAEA, admitted at the end of February that it had “involuntarily” enriched uranium to 83.7%.