Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi

Nuclear experts warn of Libya 'dirty bomb' material

A Libyan research centre has nuclear material that could be used to make a 'dirty bomb', a former U.N. inspector has said.

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to abandon efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in order to mend ties with the West, ending decades of Libyan isolation.

The country's uranium enrichment programme was dismantled and sensitive material and documentation including nuclear weapons design information were confiscated.

However Olli Heinonen, head of U.N. nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide until last year, said "nuclear security concerns still linger" as Libya's Tajoura research centre near Tripoli continued to stock large quantities of radioisotopes, radioactive waste and low-enriched uranium fuel.

The former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned of possible looting after a six-month popular insurgency has forced Gaddafi to abandon his stronghold in the Libyan capital.

"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," Heinonen, now at Harvard University, said.

"The situation at Tajoura today is unclear. We know that during times of regime collapse, lawlessness and looting reign."

He referred 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," Heinonen said.

Experts describe the threat of a crude fissile nuclear bomb, which is technically difficult to manufacture and requires hard-to-obtain bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, as a "low probability, high consequence act" - unlikely but 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.

"There are a number of nuclear and radiological materials at Tajoura that could be used by terrorists to create a dirty bomb," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

There was no immediate comment from the IAEA on the Tajoura facility, a 10 megawatt reactor located 34 km east of the Libyan capital.

The Vienna-based U.N. agency has been involved in technical aid projects in Libya, including at Tajoura.

Heinonen said Libya's rebel Transitional National Council 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".

Fitzpatrick said the looting that occurred at Iraq's Tuwaitha centre "should stand as a lesson for the need for nuclear security precautions in the situation today in Libya."

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