LIBYA'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Despite recent declarations by the Libyan PM
Mahmoud Jibril – at the end of his mandate – about the discovery of a
nuclear arsenal, the north-African country had officially suspended its
nuclear program (and WMD program), which at any rate was at any early
stage, on December 19, 2003.
The official statement was preceded by months of secret negotiations with the USA and the UK.
The decision, taken by Khadafi, was favoured by two events in particular: the attack against Saddam Hussein, accused of producing weapons of mass destruction, and the arrival in Tripoli of a container – that was emptied during its stay in an Italian harbour - that originally contained material used in the building of nuclear centrifuges.
The Libyan leader had realized that he was being watched closely and that he risked becoming in the near future the target of further international military actions. The accord for the suspension of the program was also due to an opening by the US to co-operation in the field of security, both military and economic. In practice Libya was expecting kickbacks from the suspension.
Either way, the idea of getting his hands on nuclear weapons has been one of Khadafi's goals since the revolution's early years, and the program – albeit with alternating results – was ongoing for years. His ambition was to be armed with atomic weapons - like Israel - in an attempt to defend the interests of the Arab people and/or his personal hegemony, the so-called Islamic nuclear weapon.
Right after the 1969 revolution Khadafi had sought – without succeeding – the assistance of the Chinese to produce and/or acquire an atomic weapon. In 1975 he had officially adhered to the treaty of nuclear non-proliferation that had been agreed to by the Senussi monarchy in 1968. Despite the treaty, in 1974 an accord of nuclear co-operation was reached with Argentina.
A structure was built in Tajura in 1981 with the help of the then-Soviet Union whose official intent was that of building a nuclear plant for the production of energy for civil uses. Libyan students had been sent the world over (even in the USA until the year 1983, when the US administration discontinued the practice) to study the possible applications of such energy.
Uranium had been imported (the IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency - speaks of imports by Libya in 1985, 2000 and 2001). As admitted by Abdul Qader Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program, the Pakistani had provided technical assistance to Libya. Other sources have mentioned the involvement of North Korea and German specialists. According to studies by the Western intelligence agencies, Libya had spent an overall $200 million in the program, which had failed to develop for lack of management personnel, structures and technology.
In 2003, following the decision to suspend the nuclear program, Libya decided to turn its equipment over to the AIEA. The centrifuges and other specific parts were flown to the USA on January 27, 2004, shortly before the authorised visits by international inspectors in Tajura. On March 10, 2004, the Libyan authorities signed yet another protocol with the AIEA, then headed by the Egyptian national Al Baradei. Yet the remaining fissile material (enriched uranium) was still due to leave Libya bound for a safer location.
This last step remained on stand-by for years. Libya insisted in its demands for compensation for the suspension of the program, saying that the material sent to the US was valued at about $100 million and that the suspension had not been adequately counter-balanced by political and practical initiatives as promised by the United States.
From the political angle, Khadafi wanted that the US make a public statement praising the Libyan availability in not pursuing the nuclear solution (Seif al Islam had requested the staging of an encounter between Khadafi and US President Barack Obama during the 2009 UN General Assembly in New York). On the economic side, Tripoli was demanding weapon provisions, the construction of a centre for nuclear medicine and a reduction of the commercial sanctions still enacted against Libya. This tug-of-rope protracted itself until the year 2009 when Libya decided to refuse giving away its enriched uranium.
In November 2009 a solution seemed to be at the door. The radioactive material (about 5,2 Kg) was placed inside 75 canisters that were sealed by AIEA personnel while waiting to be loaded on a plane and flown to Russia. Yet suddenly the Libyan authorities changed their minds and refused the transport. A final solution was reached after further discussions, menaces and negotiations that were conducted personally by Seif al Islam on behalf of his father: On December 21st the canisters were loaded aboard the plane and flown to Russia. Days later the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton phoned the Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa to thank him and to emphasise the bettering of bilateral relations between the two countries.
Since then Libya's nuclear problem has not resurfaced. The structure in Tajura, according to those who have visited it in the past years, remained completely abandoned. The office that was presiding the project – the “Tajura Nuclear Research Center” - has changed its name and has become the “Renewable Energy and Water Desalination Plant Center”. The office remained – until the war against Libya – under the supervision of the person who was in charge of the atomic project, Labour and Development minister Matoug Mohamed Matoug and it is likely that its role, despite the name-change, had remained unaltered.
Another office was later created, the “National Bureau for Research and Development”, perhaps as a facade of scientific research that was not necessarily dedicated to the nuclear sector.
Nevertheless, from 2003 on, the Libyan authorities have continued to seek nuclear energy, officially for peaceful uses but probably with the secret intent of acquiring, through their technicians, a certain degree of know-how in the sector.
Along the years there have been contacts with
a number of countries with regards to the atomic sector:
The French: In March 2006 the French signed an accord with Libya for the development and civil use of nuclear energy. The Signatory on the French side was the director of the Atomic Energy Commission Alain Bugat. On the preceding year there had been technical visits in Tripoli for the purpose – among others – of planning the conversion of the Tajura structure into a desalination plant. Further talks and accords for the search of uranium on Libyan soil had been reached with a company named AREVA, the same company that administers the uranium deposits in Niger. There was further talk with the French about developing nuclear power for civil usage during Khadafi's official 2007 visit in Paris.
A new accord with the USA for the civil use of nuclear power, including a series of specific co-operation projects (training of students in the nuclear sector, the creation of a centre for nuclear medicine, bilateral co-operation between specific offices, the use of radioactive material for generating energy and applied to the health sector, agriculture, industry, etc.). The spokesman for the US Department of State, Tom Casey, seen the embarrassing internal political implications of the initiative, denied that such agreements were ever reached.
In 2008 Russia and Ukraine proposed the building of a nuclear reactor for civil use. Ukaine was willing to collaborate within a barter system: co-operation in exchange for oil, bids for the construction of infrastructure in Libya and the commercialisation of agricultural products. Both initiatives never reached the operative level.
But getting back to the public statements of Mahmoud Jibril and to the discovery of a nuclear arsenal in the hands of Khadafi. There is unlikely that such arsenal could effectively be made of nuclear material. It is more likely that it coincide instead with the deposits of aggressive chemical agents that the Libyan leader possessed, despite his expressed intent, in 2003, to have them destroyed.