Libya, Belarus, and dealing with dictators

By Fissile Materials Working Group | October 26, 2011

Dealing with thuggish dictators reluctant to relinquish their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is a necessary component in the global effort to secure vulnerable fissile materials by 2013. Unfortunately, nuclear deals are often tentative and prone to collapse if a dictator’s whims change. The successful nuclear deal with Libya and the stalled deal with Belarus are indicative of this dynamic, but it should not stop the United States and other nations from seeking deals to secure fissile materials that might otherwise be exploited by would-be nuclear terrorists.

The civil war that has raged for months between loyalists to Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, and rebel forces supported by NATO has led to a rebel victory and the violent demise of Qaddafi. While many lessons will be drawn from the Libyan conflict, we should not forget the danger that fissile materials pose, particularly in unstable regions. Had Qaddafi maintained Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, there is no telling what might have occurred. It is easy to imagine the unstable dictator transferring dangerous nuclear materials to terrorist groups or unleashing his most dangerous weapons on the Libyan people themselves. Even if Qaddafi abstained from these activities, Libya’s nuclear security system could have broken down amidst the ongoing power vacuum. This in turn could have enabled fissile material to slip from Libyan control onto the black market and potentially into the hands of a terrorist group. Lastly, if Libya still had a nuclear infrastructure when the country fell into revolt, NATO forces might have been more cautious in their desire to support the rebels, which could have left Qaddafi in power and allowed him to crush the rebellion in Benghazi. Alternately, NATO might have felt pressured to put boots on the ground, which could have stolen ownership of the rebellion and resulted in any number of negative outcomes.

Fortunately, Libya’s WMD program was abandoned in a 2003 deal between Libya, Britain, and the United States in the hopes of loosening sanctions and improving relations with the West. Libya shipped its nuclear weapon designs, documents, and enrichment technology to the United States. In 2004, 16 kilograms of HEU fuel was removed from a Libyan nuclear research reactor and sent to Russia for downblending. The research reactor was converted to run on low enriched uranium (LEU) by the United States two years later. Also as part of the bargain, Libya destroyed thousands of shells filled with chemical weapons.

In late 2009, however, Qaddafi threatened to back out of the deal and suspend the last shipment of HEU to Russia. Casks containing approximately five kilograms of HEU were allowed to sit on the tarmac of the nuclear facility, where the HEU could have overheated and cracked the transport casks, which were not intended for long-term storage. This would have resulted in the release of radiation and an environmental disaster. American officials were also concerned that the HEU would be vulnerable to theft as only one guard was seen protecting the casks. But finally Qaddafi backed down and shipped out the last of Libya’s HEU stocks.

Despite Qaddafi’s brinksmanship, the deal helped to ensure that vulnerable fissile materials stayed off the black market and didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Now Libya’s transitional government and NATO forces don’t have to worry about securing vulnerable fissile materials from potential nuclear terrorists (though NATO should continue to work with Libya’s transitional government to ensure the security of leftover radioisotopes). The deal to acquire Libya’s fissile materials, which spanned multiple US administrations, has helped to ensure a more secure future.

Belarus, meanwhile, has backed out of a deal with the United States to completely eliminate its stockpiles of HEU in advance of the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Under the agreement, initially announced in December 2010, the United States would have provided “technical and financial assistance” to support and cover the costs of the nuclear material transfer. In the weeks prior to the announcement of the deal, Belarus had cooperated with the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to transfer 85 kilograms of HEU fuel out of the country to secure facilities in Russia.

However, the deal was always tentative and prone to collapse. Indeed, after the agreement was struck, the announcement of the reelection of Aleksander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, sparked protests of a rigged election, which were then violently put down by Belarusian security forces. Opposition activists were detained and sentenced to long periods of incarceration. In response to these injustices — and to economic ties with Iran — the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus. And, aware that the imposition of additional sanctions could lead to the collapse of the nuclear deal, the Obama administration followed suit on August 11, 2011. Shortly thereafter, Belarus announced the suspension of the nuclear deal, describing the imposition of additional US sanctions as “contrary to the spirit of interaction and cooperation.”

The Belarusian stockpile of HEU, still estimated to be approximately 100 kilograms, is believed to be located in secure facilities within the country. However, according to Matthew Bunn, lead researcher with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University, eliminating the stockpile remains a priority because “it’s one of only a few stocks that are enough for a crude terrorist nuclear bomb.” Given the disastrous consequences if this material were to fall into the wrong hands, American policymakers must continue to explore options to convince Belarus to eliminate its fissile materials. As Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies points out, the Obama administration need not cave in to Lukashenko’s demand to loosen sanctions in exchange for the elimination of HEU. The United States might be able to separate its nuclear initiatives from its human rights concerns by offering more technical-assistance measures, by encouraging neighboring states to impose an HEU-free zone on the region, or by threatening to block International Monetary Fund financial assistance. Policymakers should not allow the letdown of this deal’s collapse to impede future progress. After all, 85 kilograms of HEU fuel was transferred out of the country just last year, which has already made the world safer, and there is still a chance for Lukashenko to honor his country’s commitment to eliminate its stockpile altogether.

What is clear from the Belarusian and Libyan cases is that nuclear deals with dictators are tough and prone to collapse, but necessary in the goal to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism. Such initiatives will require patience, ingenuity, and the right balance of incentives and pressure in order to succeed. In the fight to keep the world’s most dangerous materials from the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, nothing but our best efforts will suffice. Even if it means engaging with thuggish dictators.

Editor’s Note: This column was written by Ryan Costello, coordinator of the Fissile Materials Working Group at the Connect U.S. Fund.

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