The Louse that Roared

Max Fisher in The Atlantic has a hair-raising story about a “nuclear standoff” last year with former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime.

According to Fisher, there was “a month-long crisis, never revealed by the Obama administration or reported in the press,” during which Libya left seven five-ton casks of uranium “out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft” by al-Qaeda or any neighboring rogue government that might learn about the loose nuclear material.

The plan, part of a nuclear disarmament pact Libya had signed onto six years earlier, had been to load the last of Libya’s remaining uranium stockpile onto a Russian cargo plane. But on Nov. 20, 2009, one day before the plane was to leave for a nuclear facility in Russia, the Libyans “unexpectedly halted the shipment,” Fisher reports.

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 dessert.

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.

Holy flying bat crap, Batman.

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 Dec. 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.

We’re all sitting on a powder keg, aren’t we?


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