About 2.5 tons of natural uranium have gone missing from a site in war-torn Libya, the United Nations nuclear watchdog has revealed, raising security fears.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement that its director general, General Rafael Mariano Grossi, had informed member states about the missing uranium on Wednesday.

During an inspection Tuesday, “agency safeguards inspectors found that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present as previously declared at a location in the State of Libya,» the statement said.

The Vienna-based agency added that it was carrying out «additional activities» to «clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear material and its current location.»

Natural uranium cannot be used immediately for power production or bomb fuel, but if obtained by a group with the wherewithal and technological resources, it could be refined into weapons-grade material over time and can also carry risks radiological in case of prolonged exposure, experts say.

That makes finding the lost uranium a priority.

«The loss of so much uranium oxide, commonly known as yellowcake, is of great concern, even though it is not highly radioactive,» said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK’s chemical, biological and nuclear defense forces and the NATO. .

De Bretton-Gordon told NBC News the uranium was «probably in powder form» and would have to be handled by people wearing hazmat suits and respirators.

«Ultimately, this uranium could be enriched for nuclear power purposes to around 20% or for nuclear weapons to around 90%, but this is not a trivial process and you would need a very advanced processing system to do it,» he added. «However, we know that Iran and North Korea are working hard on this.»

«This is not the ideal material for a dirty bomb,» de Botten-Gordon said, referring to a bomb augmented with radioactive material, «but it could be used to spread low-level contamination over a wide area. We know both Russia and ISIS I have discussed dirty bombs recently.»

Russia claimed last year that Ukraine was planning to deploy a suspected dirty bomb, but provided no evidence. Fears of such a device being deployed by extremist groups have also persisted.

With sophisticated surveillance and security systems, de Bretton-Gordon said the nuclear material was unlikely to be used for «nefarious reasons.»

Reuters first reported on the IAEA warning about a shortage of Libyan uranium.

In 2003, Libya, under then-leader Moammar Gadhafi, gave up its nuclear weapons program, which had obtained centrifuges that can enrich uranium and engineer information for a nuclear bomb, though it made little progress toward a bomb.

Libya has seen little peace since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted it.

Since 2014, political control has been divided between rival eastern and western factions, with the last major conflict ending in 2020.

Libya’s interim government, established in early 2021 through a UN-backed peace plan, was supposed to last only until elections scheduled for December of that year that have yet to be held, and its legitimacy is now also at stake. in dispute.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed.

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