A Nuclear Standoff With Libya

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In November 2009, six years after the government of Libya first agreed to disarm its nuclear weapons program, Libyan nuclear workers wheeled the last of their country's highly enriched uranium out in front of the Tajoura nuclear facility, just east of Tripoli. U.S. and Russian officials overseeing Libya's disarmament began preparations to ship this final batch of weapons-grade nuclear material to Russia, where it would be treated and destroyed.
 
The plan was to load the uranium onto a massive Russian cargo plane, one of the few in the world specially equipped to fly nuclear materials. On November 20, the day before the plane was to leave for a nuclear facility in Russia, Libyan officials unexpectedly halted the shipment. Without explanation, they declared that the uranium would not be permitted to leave Libya. They left the seven five-ton casks out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.

For one month and one day, U.S. and Russian diplomats negotiated with Libya for the uranium to be released and flown out of the country. At the same time, engineers from both countries worked to secure the nuclear material from theft or leakage, two serious dangers that became more likely the longer the casks sat exposed. On December 21, Libya finally allowed a Russian plane to remove the casks, ending Libya's nuclear weapons program and with it the low-grade game of nuclear blackmail they had been playing.
 
The month-long crisis, never revealed by the Obama administration or reported in the press, is recorded in U.S. State Department documents obtained by The Atlantic. Those documents tell the story of frantic diplomatic maneuvering as U.S. and Russian officials pushed Libyan leaders to honor their disarmament pledge. A person with access to the cables provided them to The Atlantic in order to publicize the dangers of loose nuclear materials under the control of unpredictable regimes in unstable countries.
 
Key details of the episode were confirmed by a U.S. official and an international nuclear monitor. Owing to the sensitive nature of nuclear counterproliferation, a number of technical details have been omitted from this account, as have the names of all U.S. officials in Libya.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on this story, saying only that the United States enjoys a "normalized" relationship with Libya. He stressed that the Libyans "did meet their commitment" to dismantle their nuclear weapons program.
 
The United States had a troubled relationship with Libya during the later years of the last century. In the two decades after Muammar al-Qaddafi seized power in 1969, Libya targeted the U.S. and its allies with state-sponsored acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of civilians. In three incidents in the 1980s, Libya's military attacked U.S. navy ships and fighter jets in the Mediterranean. For its part, the U.S. responded with airstrikes and decades of crippling economic sanctions. However, relations between the two countries have warmed in recent years, beginning with Libya's 2003 pledge to dismantle its nuclear program and peaking in 2007 with President George W. Bush's decision to send a U.S. ambassador to Tripoli, the first in 35 years.
 
Libya agreed to remove its weapons-grade materials and equipment shortly after a 2003 incident in which the U.S. government intercepted a ship bound for that country with Pakistani-made black-market centrifuges. For six years, Libyan officials complied with U.S.-led international efforts to dismantle the program. In November of last year, when officials without notice halted the dismantling process, the Libyans were down to their last 5.2 kilograms--not enough to make a conventional weapon, but sufficient for a dirty bomb.* A few days later, the U.S. embassy was contacted by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif is widely seen as Libya's great hope for reform should he win out against his more conservative brother, Mutassim, and succeed their father. But on that day, Saif told the U.S. ambassador to Libya that he was "fed up" with the U.S. He warned, "Slowly, slowly, we are moving backward rather than forward."
 
Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could "fix" the nuclear crisis--if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, "The ball is in your court."
 
The U.S. ambassador warned Saif that the Libyans had "chosen a very dangerous issue on which to express its apparent pique about perceived problems in the bilateral relationship," as an embassy official later put it in summarizing the meeting. According to that official, whose cable to Washington was among the 115 pages reviewed by The Atlantic, the ambassador added, "By its actions, Libya was jeopardizing its relationship with the whole international community."
 
As Saif laid out his demands to the United States, Libya's uranium sat outside Tajoura inviting more and more risk each day. The casks holding the uranium were designed for easy transportation but only short-term storage, a dangerous combination that made them susceptible to theft and cracking. Though International Atomic Energy Agency seals had been placed on the casks, the seals were only meant to indicate whether tampering had occurred and could be easily broken.
 
At one point, according to the documents, U.S. officials were alarmed to find only a single armed guard at the nuclear facility, and "they did not know if [his gun] was loaded." Perhaps most worryingly, the casks had been left near the facility's large loading crane. U.S. officials worried about the security of the casks. It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan desert.
 
Even if the uranium was not stolen, Russian nuclear engineers warned of the likelihood that the casks would eventually crack, leaking radiation and causing a biological and environmental disaster. But as the meetings between U.S. and Libyan officials stretched on, it was not clear when, if ever, Libya would consent to removing the casks.
 
The Russian engineers busied themselves with finding a way to secure the uranium, something that required them to "develop entirely new technology" on the fly, as a U.S. official wrote. Faced with an unprecedented problem--nuclear material abandoned in temporary casks that could not be moved --they set out to improvise a solution. The uranium had to be removed from the casks but was far too radioactive to be handled by humans. The engineers settled on a remote-controlled device that they hoped could safely extract the uranium and move it to the Tajoura facility's built-in ponds, where it would be better contained. The so-called grapple would have been the first of its kind. They even planned to train Tajoura's Libyan engineers in the grapple's use. Department of Energy officials in Libya called it "an unprecedented operation."
 
The Russian engineers never had a chance to build the grapple, much less use it. On December 7, Saif sent word to the U.S. embassy that he would allow Russia to put the uranium on board the plane. Saif's message, delivered by an intermediary, promised that formal permission would arrive soon after. Saif said he had ultimately been appeased not by the promise of an arms sale or financial assistance--there is no evidence any such concessions had been offered by the United States--but by a December 3 phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa. The exact nature of the conversation between Clinton and Kusa is not recorded in these documents. But in the cable from the U.S. embassy requesting the call, American officials asked that Clinton give "a general statement of commitment to the relationship, a commitment to work with the Libyans to move the relationship ahead, and a strong point insisting that the [uranium] shipment be allowed to go forward immediately."
 
That gesture of diplomatic courtship seems to have been adequate to defuse the crisis. Nuclear officials in Russia received a formal letter on December 15 announcing that Libya would allow the uranium to be removed. Six days later the seven casks were on their way to Russia.


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* This sentence originally indicated that 5.2 kilograms of uranium was enough to make a conventional nuclear weapon.

Thumbnail image credit: Getty Images
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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