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Updated: December 4, 2010 06:26 IST

Gaddafi risked nuclear disaster: Wikileaks

David Leigh
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Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. File photo
AP
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. File photo

A potential “environmental disaster” was kept secret by the U.S. last year when a large consignment of highly enriched uranium in Libya came close to cracking open and leaking radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The incident came after the mercurial Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, suddenly went back on a promise to dispose of the weapons-grade uranium, apparently out of pique at a diplomatic slight received in New York when he was barred from pitching a tent outside the U.N.

Leaked cables show that the shipment of seven metal casks - each weighing five tonnes and only sealed for transport, not storage - were left on the tarmac of a Libyan nuclear facility with a single armed guard. As U.S. and Russian diplomats frantically lobbied Libyan officials, scientists warned that the uranium inside the casks was highly radioactive and rapidly heating up. The material was originally part of Mr. Gaddafi’s nuclear weapons plan.

Virtual time bomb

“Department of energy experts are deeply concerned by the safety and security risks,” U.S. ambassador Gene Cretz said in a secret cable back to Washington from Tripoli. “According to the DOE experts we have one month to resolve the situation before the safety and security concerns become a crisis.

“The temperature of the HEU [highly enriched uranium] fuel, which is radioactive, could reach such a level to cause cracking on the casks and release of radioactive nuclear material ... Security concerns alone dictate that we must employ all of our resources to find a timely solution to this problem and to keep any mention of it out of the press.” The casks containing 5.2kg of HEU were considered “highly transportable” and would have represented a huge prize for terrorists or would-be nuclear states. U.S. officials, the cables show, urged the Libyans to disengage the crane at the site that would have allowed intruders to load the casks on to a vehicle.

The containers were sitting at Libya’s Tajoura nuclear facility. The DOE team “only saw one security guard with a gun (although they did not know if it was loaded)”.

“Given the highly transportable nature of the HEU and the shoddy security at Tajoura any mention of this issue in the press could pose serious security concerns. We have to assume that the Libyan leader is the source of the problem.” The crisis blew up on 20 November 2009. A phone call suddenly came that day from Libya’s atomic energy director, Ali Gashut, just as a Russian heavy transport aircraft, a specialised Antonov 124-100, was due to arrive in Libya to take away the uranium for disposal. Mr. Gashut had been “instructed”, he said, to prevent the plane from landing.

Agreement dishonoured

The U.S. government had offered to pay Russia to take back the HEU and dispose of it. It had originally been supplied by Moscow, supposedly for research.

Libya’s agreement to get rid of its HEU was part of a package for Mr. Gaddafi to end his pariah status by abandoning weapons of mass destruction. By autumn 2009 he should have sent back all his HEU and started to destroy his stock of Scud B missiles. By the end of 2010 he is supposed to have converted his Rabta chemical weapons factory into a pharmaceutical plant and destroyed nerve gas ingredients. The final step, next year, is for Libya to destroy stocks of mustard gas.

When the HEU crisis broke, Mr. Cretz finally managed to confront Mr. Gaddafi’s influential son, Saif al-Islam. Mr. Saif announced that the Libyans were “fed up” and Mr. Gaddafi had felt “humiliated” by his recent treatment in New York.

U.S. diplomats recorded privately that Mr. Gaddafi’s own compatriots felt embarrassed and ashamed by what were termed his “antics” in New York that August.

Mr. Gaddafi had been refused consent to pitch a tent outside U.N. headquarters, and a rambling speech almost two hours long he made to the U.N. general assembly was greeted with considerable hostility.

Mr. Cretz suggested that a personal message from Hillary Clinton to Mr. Gaddafi himself might soothe the dictator. A placatory message was accordingly rapidly dispatched on 3 December. But permissions were still not granted. The HEU casks remained on the tarmac, getting hotter.

A U.S. diplomat went to see the Libyan foreign minister in alarm and “described the environmental disaster that could take place ... We also are seeking a meeting with Saif al-Islam’s aide ... in hopes of ensuring that senior Libyan officials understand the grave security and safety risks”.

On 7 December the situation finally brightened: armed guards appeared at the nuclear plant. “A close aide to Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi indicated that [Clinton’s] message ... had been positively received and passed to the ‘highest levels’” There was more brinkmanship to come. The U.S. said it would refuse to pay the $800,000 Russian transport bill unless the fuel was officially released by a deadline of 18 December.

Finally the giant Antonov plane was allowed to land. At dawn on 21 December, after a fraught month, it successfully took off for Russia with its radioactive cargo.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

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