WikiLeaks XXIV: Security for Radioactive Materials in Yemen Goes From Bad to Nonexistent

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-fourth in the series.

A brief, but alarming, dispatch from the US embassy in Sana’a emerged this weekend, outlining the lax conditions under which radioactive materials are guarded in Yemen. According to a cable written earlier this year and published by the Guardian on Sunday afternoon, “The lone security guard standing watch at Yemen‘s main radioactive materials storage facility was removed from his post on December 30, 2009, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In his place? A single “closed-circuit television security camera [which] broke six months ago and was never fixed.”

While it is unclear who, exactly, XXXXXXXXXXXX might be, they were sufficiently worried about the unguarded storage facility to plead with the United States “to help convince the [government of Yemen] to remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility.” The cable reports that the unidentified source warned US authorities that “Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen’s nuclear material.”

The facility under question held

various radioactive materials, small amounts of which are used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sana’a hospital, and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment spread out across the country.

While these stockpiles would be useless to those seeking to build a nuclear bomb, they are nonetheless of interest to mischief makers keen to cause large scale disaster. Speaking with the Guardian, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn points out that materials such as those discussed in the cable

could make a very nasty dirty bomb capable of contaminating a wide area… enough to make a mess that would cost tens of billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic disruption, with all sorts of controversy over how clean is clean, how will people go back there.

The Yemen cable offer at least the second disturbing report in recent weeks of potentially harmful materials being exposed to possible capture by non-state actors. In late November, the Atlantic‘s Max Fisher detailed a previously unreported US-Russian standoff with Libya during the closing weeks of 2009. Fisher’s reporting was later backed up by cables released by WikiLeaks (and very strangely reported as fresh news by the New York Times a week later with absolutely zero acknowledgment of the Atlantic‘s scoop). As the north African country prepared to send its final shipment of weapons-grade nuclear material to Russia as part of a major disarmament agreement with Washington, Tripoli suddenly reversed course, refusing to allow the batch of nuclear goods leave Libyan territory.

As Fisher reports, the standoff

left the seven five-ton casks [of nuclear material] 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.

Details of the crisis itself are the stuff of a West Wing episode. After concluding a deal with the United States to disarm its fledgling nuclear program, all seemed to be progressing well.

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–still enough to make a 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.”

As the Libyans played out their hardball strategy of nuclear brinkmanship, the highly vulnerable casks of nuclear material sat exposed.

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.

At the end of the day, it appears that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully interceded to diffuse the crisis by simply making a call to Libya’s foreign minister. While details of the conversation are not known, Fisher reports that the US embassy in Tripoli requested that Clinton deliver “a general statement of commitment to the relationship [with Libya], a commitment to work with the Libyans to move the relationship ahead.” Whatever was said, worked. A week later, the materials arrived safely in Russia where they presumably were treated and ultimately destroyed.

In the case of the Yemen stockpile, the more recent embassy cable notes that Yemen’s “Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Ambassador on January 7 that no radioactive material was currently stored in Sana’a and that all ‘radioactive waste’ was shipped to Syria.” Cold comfort to be sure, especially in light of other WikiLeaks documents—for starters, see here, here, and here—demonstrating the ease with which dangerous materials can be had by just about anyone who wants them.