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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Libyan Nuclear Weapons

Tripoli joined the IAEA in 1963. At one time, some observers classified Libya among the most dangerous countries from the standpoint of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. But in recent years, concerns about Libyan nuclear ambitions have faded, though apprehensions about Libyan chemical weapons efforts remain very much alive. Libya is in no position to obtain access to nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, given the extremely limited domestic technical base of the country.

Over the years, Libya's nuclear program's progress has suffered from mismanagement, lack of spare parts, and the reluctance of foreign suppliers to provide assistance, particularly since the UN embargo went into effect in 1992. However, Qadhafi had not abandoned his goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon. He continued to try to develop a Libyan nuclear weapons infrastructure. Despite a 25-year effort to acquire or develop a nuclear weapon, Libya's nuclear program remained in the embryonic stage. Prior to 2003, the U.S. Intelligence Community estimated that Libya would have a deployable weapon by 2007. Subsequent inspections have since refuted that belief. It had succeeded in providing some training to a number of students and technicians and the establishment of a nuclear research center, which includes a small nuclear research reactor under IAEA safeguards. This facility, located at Tajura, southeast of Tripoli, was provided by the former Soviet Union. Since it was unlikely that Tripoli could produce a weapon without significant and sustained foreign technical assistance, Qadhafi reportedly was trying to recruit nuclear scientists to assist in developing nuclear weapons.

Qadhafi's stance on nuclear weapons has been contradictory. Unconfirmed but persistent press reports beginning soon after the 1969 revolution indicated that Libya wanted to purchase a nuclear weapon or the components for such a device. According to one report, Qadhafi sent his deputy, Jallud, to Beijing in an unsuccessful attempt to purchase tactical nuclear weapons. Qadhafi has voiced his concern over the Israeli nuclear capability and publicly expressed his desire to obtain nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, in 1975 Libya reaffirmed its commitment to the 1968 Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed originally by the monarchy in 1968. Qadhafi also stated in interviews in 1981 and 1984 that Libya was only interested in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy, and he scoffed at the idea of "an Islamic bomb."

In 1975, Libya had ratified the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty signed by the Idris regime in 1968. In 1980, an agreement was reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency placing all of Libya's nuclear installations under international inspection. Despite these steps, in the mid- and late 1970s, Qadhafi repeatedly proclaimed his country's determination to acquire nuclear weapons, primarily because he was convinced that his archenemy, Israel, had achieved such a military capability.

There is no doubt, however, that Libya has undertaken extensive bilateral negotiations to secure nuclear research facilities and power plants, and many Libyan students in nuclear energy fields have been sent to United States, West European, and East European universities to further their studies. According to the terms of a 1974 nuclear cooperation treaty with Argentina, Libya was provided with equipment and technical training. Argentina agreed to send senior geologists to Libya to advise on uranium prospecting and uranium enrichment. One alleged reason Libya occupied the Aouzou Strip in Chad in 1975 was that the area was thought to be rich in uranium deposits. Once inspections began after Quadafi's December 2003 decision to disarm, it was confirmed that Libya did obtain "yellow cake" from Niger in 1978, as U.S. Intelligence had long believed. Libya and India agreed in July 1978 to cooperate in the peaceful application of nuclear energy, in line with India's "atoms for peace" policy. France agreed in 1976 to build a nuclear research plant in Libya designed to power a water desalination plant.

Qadhafi sought help in obtaining nuclear technology from a number of countries, including the People's Republic of China. Among these efforts, the cooperation with Pakistan launched in 1977 seemed for a time to be producing material results. Libya appeared to be providing financial assistance and, later, deliveries of uranium "yellow cake" originating in Niger in the hope of eventually being compensated by weapons from Pakistan. However, in an interview with an Indian newspaper in March 1986, Qadhafi declared that Libya would never help Pakistan acquire an atomic bomb. He said: "We consider nuclear weapons production a great mistake against humanity."

Libya's main partner in the nuclear field, however, was the Soviet Union. A small (ten megawatt) Soviet-supplied reactor began operation in Tajura (outside Tripoli) in 1981. Three years later, a research center was opened at the same site staffed by 750 Libyan specialists and technicians aided by Soviet staff. Many students were sent abroad; a group of 200 was studying in the United States until early 1983 when the United States proscribed training Libyans in nuclear science. As noted in press reports, however, in the mid-1990s discussions between Libya and Russia indicated possible renewed Russian support for Libya's nuclear effort at Tajura, including refurbishment and long-term maintenance.

Libya planned to buy a power station from the Soviet Union, but, dissatisfied with the technology involved, negotiated with the Belgian firm of Belgonucleaire to take over the engineering contract and supply much of the needed equipment. After the United States objected, fearing use of the equipment in weapons development, Belgium decided in 1984 to refuse the US$1 billion contract. Shortly thereafter, Moscow's commitment to construct an 880-megawatt power station to be located in the Sirt [Surt] region was reaffirmed. It was to cost over US$4 billion, with repayment to stretch over 15 to 18 years. In early 1986, however, a plan for the construction of nine 440-megawatt nuclear power plants was suspended indefinitely.

Libya ordered a pilot scale uranium conversion facility in 1984. A Japanese company supplied Libya with the technology. The sale was apparently arranged directly with the Japanese instead of through middlemen.

As of 2002 the assessment of the US Government was that, since the suspension of UN sanctions against Libya in 1999, Libya had been able to increase its access to dual-use nuclear technologies. Although Libya would need significant foreign assistance to acquire a nuclear weapon, Tripoli's nuclear infrastructure enhancement remains of concern. Qaddafi hinted at this in a 25 March 2002 interview with Al-Jazirah when he said, "We demanded the dismantling of the weapons of mass destruction that the Israelis have; we must continue to demand that. Otherwise, the Arabs will have the right to possess that weapon."

A US-led naval operation in October 2003 interdicted a shipment of uranium-enrichment components bound for Libya. US officials say the seizure may have helped prompt Libya to make its pledge to dismantle weapons of mass destruction. The US-led naval operation resulted in the seizure of thousands of uranium-centrifuge parts, bound for Libya, from a German-registered freighter in the Mediterranean. The vessel was seized based on intelligence information that it was carrying nuclear components, and that the interdiction was a major success for the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, the PSI. Begun in early 2003, the PSI involves the United States and more than a dozen other countries working together to prevent the illicit shipment by sea, land or air of weapons of mass destruction material that might end up in the hands of terrorist groups or rogue states. The source of the centrifuge parts bound for Libya has not been revealed.

On 19 December 2003 Libya agreed to destroy all of its chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. The surprise announcement followed nine months of secret talks between Libyan, American, and British officials. Libya agreed to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and to allow for immediate inspections and monitoring.

Shahram Chubin, director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, believes Gaddafi is paving the way for a secure succession for his son. "I think that Libya -- and in particular its leadership -- are getting ready for succession. They must have recognized that it makes sense to bring Libya back into the fold of the international community, and to do that they'd have to dispense with these [weapons] programs that they've been having for many, many years, which clearly serve no rational purpose. And I think it's a recognition by Gadhafi that he wants to let his son succeed him and to leave Libya in a slightly better position if he gets rid of these useless weapons, which have created unnecessary distrust and suspicion on the part of its neighbors and, of course, the international community as a whole, including Britain and the United States," Chubin said. [ SOURCE ]

The October 2003 seizure of the centrifuge parts came little more than two months before the surprise announcement 19 December that Libya, after negotiations with the United States and Britain, had agreed to dismantle its secret nuclear and other weapons-of-mass destruction programs. The interdiction may well have been a factor in Libya's ultimate decision to end its covert weapons efforts. The October interdiction occurred several months after the start of secret talks between the Muammar Gadhafi government and the United States and Britain on the weapons programs. Mr. Ereli said that shortly after the seizure, Libya agreed for the first time to allow experts from the two countries to visit its weapons facilities.

Libya initiated the dialog in mid-March 2003 when it requested the UK to broker talks with the US on weapons of mass destruction. A team of American and British intelligence officers spent about two weeks Libya in October and again in December 2003. During the visits, the team of US and UK inspectors went to 10 sites related to Libya's nuclear effort, along with dozens of others related to chemical and missile programs [some reports suggested that ten nuclear related sites were visited, while other accounts suggested that the team was taken to dozens of sites in all]. Libya allowed US inspectors to visited weapons sites where they saw centrifuges for enriching uranium, which was more advanced than Washington thought. A weapons program would need hundreds of centrifuges, called a cascade, to make significant quantities of uranium. The inspection teams saw only a few centrifuges, did not see a cascade, and Libya denied that enriched uranium had been produced.

Speaking on background, a British official said Libya was "developing a nuclear fuel cycle intended to support nuclear weapons development... Libya had not acquired a nuclear weapons capability, though it was close to developing one." Also on background, a US intelligence analyst said the nuclear field was one are the Libyans were "substantially further along than had been publicly disclosed."

Libya is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing limited IAEA inspections, but now planned to sign the treaty's Additional Protocol that allows more intrusive and unannounced inspections. Initial meetings between Libyan officials and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency could be the beginnings of a long and complex process to verify Tripoli's nuclear ambitions. The head of the atomic agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, opened talks on 20 December 2003 with Libya on the process of future inspections of Tripoli's nuclear activities. Similar work was carried out by the UN nuclear watchdog in 1991 after South Africa announced it would voluntarily abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Senior IAEA inspectors visited the country to collect information on nuclear material, lists of imports, laboratory programs and engineering facilities. They also carried out environmental sampling in the Kalahari desert. In the case of South Africa, the IAEA placed nuclear facilities under safeguards with regular inspections and either destroyed weapons-related equipment or converted it to peaceful nuclear usage. The process took years.

In January 2004 Saif al-Islam Gadaffi said Libya spent $40 million on nuclear components, including centrifuges, from various black market dealers, including Pakistani scientists. The Pakistani scientists received as much as $100m over several years starting in the late 1990s.

Details about Libya's clandestine nuclear program emerged from a month-long investigation by US, UK and UN inspectors who were given access to formerly clandestine nuclear facilities in and around Tripoli. By late January 2004 investigators had learned that Libya had covertly acquired thousands of parts for gas centrifuges as well as machine tools for making additional centrifuges. Libya also had acquired designs for making a nuclear bomb. But key elements of the design were missing, and Libya's scientists lacked the expertise to evaluate the plans or build such a weapon.

Libya began purchasing components for a relatively simple gas centrifuge made mostly of aluminum beginning in the late 1990s. After acquiring parts for about 100 machines, Libya instead began to focus on a more sophisticated maraging steel centrifuge design. Libya had arranged to purchase 10,000 of the maraging steel centrifuges, sufficient to produce as many as ten bombs a year. Some of the centrifuge parts came from factories built expressly to manufacture nuclear components for the black market, including one possible manufacturing site in Malaysia. Libya's centrifuges are of the same design as machines used in Pakistan.

Libya had purchased a turnkey facility in which foreign suppliers would supply the parts for the gas centrifuges, as well as assemble and test them. Libya was acquiring a large uranium enrichment facility capable of producing enough HEU for several bombs a year.

On 27 January 2004 the United States airlifted out of Libya components of the nuclear weapons program that country agreed to give up. The White House hailed Libya for its cooperation and said its good faith in dismantling weapons will be reciprocated. The announcement was made several hours after the U-S transport plane had landed in the central state of Tennessee carrying some 25 metric tons of Libyan weapons program components including centrifuge parts, uranium, and sensitive documentation. The airlift was the most dramatic move since Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi concluded an agreement 19 December 2003 with the United States and Britain, to give up weapons of mass destruction programs in a bid to end two decades of international isolation and US sanctions.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:45:40 ZULU