‘Dirty bomb’ threat looms large as nuclear centre at risk from looters, warns ex-UN inspector
Seeking to mend ties with the West, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to abandon efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – a move that brought him in from the cold and helped end decades of isolation.
Olli Heinonen, head of UN nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide until last year, pointed to substantial looting that took place at Iraq’s Tuwaitha atomic research facility near Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
In Iraq, “most likely due to pure luck, the story did not end in a radiological disaster,” said Mr Heinonen.
Libya’s uranium enrichment programme was dismantled after Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction eight years ago. Sensitive material and documentation including nuclear weapons design information were confiscated.
But Mr Heinonen said the country’s Tajoura research centre continues to stock large quantities of radioisotopes, radioactive waste and low-enriched uranium fuel after three decades of nuclear research and radioisotope production. Refined uranium can have civilian as well as military purposes, if enriched much further.
Mr Heinonen, now at Harvard University, said: “While we can be thankful that the highly enriched uranium stocks are no longer in Libya, the remaining material in Tajoura could, if it ended up in the wrong hands, be used as ingredients for dirty bombs. The situation at Tajoura today is unclear. We know that during times of regime collapse, lawlessness and looting reign.”
This view was backed by Mark Fitzpatrick, a director at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, who said: “There are a number of nuclear and radiological materials at Tajoura that could be used by terrorists to create a dirty bomb.”
A so-called dirty bomb can combine conventional explosives such as dynamite with radioactive material.
Experts describe the threat of a crude nuclear bomb as a “low probability, high consequence act” – unlikely with the potential to cause large-scale harm to life and property. But a “dirty bomb”, where conventional explosives are used to disperse radiation from a radioactive source, is a “high probability, low consequence act” with more potential to terrorise than cause large loss of life.
Mr Heinonen said Libya’s new government would need to be aware of the material at Tajoura. Once a transition takes place it should “take the necessary steps to secure these potentially dangerous radioactive sources”.