Libya’s Nuclear Update – 2004

On December 19th, the Libyan government reversed course and announced a plan to dismantle all of its programs for making mass destruction weapons and to allow immediate international inspections of its weapon sites. Libya’s declaration resulted from secret negotiations with the United States and Britain that began in March 2003. By the end of December, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi had allowed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Mohamed ElBaradei to lead a team of inspectors through four of Libya’s nuclear facilities. And in addition to immediate monitoring, Qaddafi also promised full disclosure of all aspects of Libya’s weapon programs and agreed to sign the Additional Protocol to Libya’s IAEA inspection agreement, an act that will enable IAEA teams to conduct surprise inspections in the future.

It was reported that ElBaradei and U.S. officials disagreed on the status of Libya’s nuclear program. U.S. and U.K. weapon inspectors, who had visited at least ten of Libya’s secret weapon sites during the lengthy negotiation process, reportedly believed Libya’s program to be more advanced than ElBaradei, who described the program as one “in the very initial stages of development” following his preliminary inspection on December 29th. ElBaradei was quoted as saying that “we haven’t seen any industrial-scale facility to produce highly enriched uranium. We haven’t seen any enriched uranium.” Nevertheless, the U.S. and IAEA inspectors have agreed to coordinate their efforts in Libya. U.S. and British specialists charged with dismantling the nuclear program have already begun to ship Libya’s most sensitive materials, equipment and documentation to the United States. The shipments included uranium hexafluoride, missile guidance devices, components for enriching uranium for bomb fuel and a box of documents said to be blueprints for a nuclear weapon. The IAEA teams will certify Libya’s compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Although Libya was able to acquire both the design and the components necessary to build an advanced centrifuge made of maraging steel, and had reportedly built a pilot-scale centrifuge cascade and conversion unit, Libya appeared to be years away from developing a nuclear weapon. However, the fact that Libya could make substantial progress while subject to strict U.N. sanctions, IAEA inspections and, presumably, the scrutiny of U.S. and Israeli intelligence raises serious questions about the ability to deter the spread of nuclear weapons.

Pakistan’s role

Suspicions that Libya’s nuclear technology and designs came from Pakistan were confirmed in January 2004 when Libya and Iran provided proof that both countries had received assistance from Pakistani scientists including Abdul Qadeer Khan and Mohammed Farooq. Khan, Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist, has since confessed to providing Libya, Iran and North Korea with designs and equipment necessary to produce the fuel for a nuclear weapon.

According to Pakistani officials, Khan may have begun collaborating with Libya as early as 1991. Using a complex network of chartered planes, ships and various German, Dutch and Sri Lankan middlemen, Khan provided Libya with centrifuge designs and hardware. The equipment transfers were coordinated by Bukary Syed Abu Tahir who, through the Gulf Technical Industries (GTI) company in Dubai, commissioned Scomi Group Berhad (Scomi) to produce centrifuge components in a new Malaysian factory. Scomi Precision Engineering Sdn Bhd (SCOPE), a Scomi subsidiary specially created to fill GTI’s order, reportedly acquired essential raw materials from the Singapore subsidiary of the German company Bikar Metalle.

Though Pakistan claims that Khan ceased aiding Libya in 1997, shipments from SCOPE continued until October 2003. It was then that Italian authorities seized SCOPE’s centrifuge parts on a German ship bound to Libya from Dubai.

Conflicting reports of Khan’s confession make it unclear whether transfers to Libya were made with the knowledge or approval of the Pakistani government, but some level of complicity seems likely. In a televised statement, Khan claimed to have acted independently. However, Khan has reportedly told Pakistani investigators that senior military officials – including Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg and current president Pervez Musharraf – were aware of Khan’s transfers to Iran and North Korea. It has also been alleged that the head of security for the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), Brig. Muhammad Iqbal Tajwar, participated in the plan to ship nuclear equipment out of Pakistan. And because the Pakistani military was responsible for security at KRL, it is unlikely that Khan could have arranged for the transfer of any hardware without the military’s knowledge.


After seizing control of Libya in 1969, Colonel Qaddafi sent conflicting messages over the years about his nuclear aspirations. Until the recent announcement, Libya had made a sustained effort to develop a nuclear infrastructure and to satisfy Qaddafi’s longstanding goal of securing a nuclear weapon to counter the capabilities of the United States and Israel. Libya’s efforts began in the 1970s. In 1975, Libya both ratified the NPT and revealed its leader’s desire for nuclear weapons. Qaddafi then proceeded to make a deal with the Soviet Union – after negotiations with the American-based General Atomics Company were cut off by the U.S. Department of State – that would provide Libya with its first nuclear reactor. In 1983, a Soviet-supplied 10 mw research reactor began operating at the Tajura Nuclear Research Center. The Tajura reactor was subject to IAEA inspections that remain in place today.

Since 1991, Libya’s official position regarding its nuclear aspirations has been increasingly difficult to decipher. While Libyan officials periodically asserted that Libya did not desire a nuclear weapon, that message was contradicted by Qaddafi’s intermittent statements that Israel’s nuclear capability justified Libya’s pursuit of the same thing. In 1996, Libya took a potentially constructive step when it signed the Pelindaba Treaty declaring Africa a nuclear-free zone and prohibiting parties to the treaty from possessing nuclear weapons or materials (though Libya has yet to ratify the treaty). But declarations and treaties did not prevent the United States and the United Nations from imposing sanctions against Libya in response to charges that Libya had sponsored acts of terrorism. The sanctions were a deterrent to potential foreign suppliers and were believed to be one of the significant factors for Libya’s slow progress in developing its nuclear program during the 1990s.


The 10 mw nuclear research reactor at the Tajura Nuclear Research Center outside of Tripoli began operating in 1983. According to an IAEA report in 2002, the reactor was run for 20 hours per week for only 14 weeks of that year. The reactor is fueled by uranium enriched to U-235.

The Tajura Nuclear Research Center was supplied by the Soviet Union as part of a 1975 agreement. The Soviets furnished both the Tajura reactor and its fuel. The Soviets were not the sole merchants, however. Other Eastern Bloc countries and a few Western states also appear to have contributed. Ann McLachlan, a reporter for Nucleonics Week, visited the Tajura facility in 1984 and reported seeing large quantities of U.S., Swiss, Hungarian and Polish equipment. McLachlan claimed that Tajura’s laboratories contained SEN Helvet (Swiss) computer terminals and equipment from U.S. companies such as EG&G, Instron, Tektronix and Varian.

Because the Tajura reactor operates on a part-time basis and is fueled with enriched uranium it is unlikely that Libya could have used it to produce the plutonium necessary for a nuclear weapon.


Colonel Qaddafi began discussions to construct a much larger nuclear facility in Libya’s Sirte region in 1975. By 1977, the Soviet firm Atomenergoeksport reportedly had completed designs for an 880 mw nuclear power plant. By 1984, having made no significant progress on the Soviet plan, Qaddafi attempted to find a more advanced design that would incorporate the Soviet reactors. Libya sought engineering assistance from Belgonucleaire, a Belgian architecture and engineering firm that had helped Libya in previous negotiations with Atomenergoeksport and General Atomic Company, and from the Belgian firm Cockerill-Sambre. However, before this agreement could be finalized, the Belgians backed out under U.S. pressure.

After the Belgian withdrawal, the plan was eventually abandoned. This decision reportedly resulted from Soviet reservations about expanding Libya’s nuclear capabilities, or from the fact that falling oil prices meant that Libya could no longer afford the station.

In early 2000, Tripoli and Moscow renewed talks on a new power reactor deal. Those discussions continued through the first half of 2003. It is unknown whether this deal will proceed in light of Libya’s recent announcement.