Posted by: Jack | September 24, 2011

Something else you might not have known about the war in Libya

France, with a government whose neo-Napoleonic ambitions have spearheaded the conquest of Libya by the Euro-American powers, is one of the world’s countries most dependent on nuclear energy. Around 78% of French electricity is generated in nuclear plants.

More generally, in the last 10 years the market price of uranium (the required fuel of nuclear reactors) has increased dramatically, as more and more countries submit to the nuclear industry’s attempt to position itself as the saviour from climate change and fossil fuels (an idea which I am highly sceptical of, but that’s a post for another time.) There are pessimistic and optimistic scenarios about when the world will reach peak uranium, but, just the same as oil, uranium is a finite resource. That means there will come a point where we have reached the maximum possible global production of it, and after that production will decline to the point where we’re expending more energy to get it out of the ground than we’re gaining in nuclear energy.

Some of the more pessimistic scenarios argue that the peak was already reached in the early 1980s and that production has declined ever since. It’s certainly the case that there are far fewer new uranium mining projects waiting to be opened up, meaning that it’s harder for the market to respond to higher prices by increasing production. This inelastic price structure helped contribute to a price bubble for uranium in 2007, and although the price has gone down since then it hasn’t returned to the levels seen in the 90s, remaining at an elevated level.

Uranium mining is already unable to supply the 65,000 tonnes needed by the world’s nuclear reactors every year, meeting only about 70% of that demand. The shortfall is made up by re-using supplies from other sources, including decommissioned nuclear warheads. This is obviously a solution with a limited shelf life. Pessimistic estimates argue that there will be a serious problem for uranium supply by the 2040s.

Now, an interesting but little known fact is that Col. Gadaffi’s Libya has for decades been interested in the suspected large uranium deposits on the fringes of its territory, in sparsely inhabited desert regions whose control has been disputed between Libya and its neighbour Chad.

Gadaffi had a long-standing interest in nuclear technology. Obviously he wished to see Libya taken seriously as an important power, and the ultimate way to do that is to develop nuclear weapons. Numerous attempts were made by the Libyan government to pursue this, including a mission to China to try and buy them off the shelf, and even contact with the Austrian engineer who led the team that developed modern nuclear centrifuges. Libya as also had a long standing interest in nuclear power plants, and has had several different agreements with foreign powers to try and develop its capacity. Recently it was reported (although of course we should take any reports coming out of Libya in the mainstream media with a pinch of salt) that the pro-NATO rebels in Libya had discovered large stores of uranium yellow cake.

Chad, Libya and the Aozou Strip

Libya may not have much in the way of uranium resources on its own territory as is now internationally recognised. But from 1978 until 1987 it was actively involved in trying to conquer territory from Chad that is believed to have significant uranium reserves. The Chadian-Libya conflict involved Libya backing political factions in the north of Chad, who provided infantry that was matched by Libyan air support and armour. At its highpoint, this strategy allowed Gadaffi to cut Chad in half, and deny control of the north to the government in N’Djamena.

Libya was eventually driven out of Chad after a last intense phase of fighting known as the ‘Toyota war’ , so-called because of the use of pickup trucks with mounted machines guns and missiles by highly mobiles Chadian forces. (Many news sources noted the strategy of just buying pickup trucks en masse and using them as military vehicles by the Libyan government in their conflict with the rebels, and remarked on it as an innovative idea, ignorant of the fact that it had already been used to inflict a defeat on Gadaffi.)

Prior to this French special forces had provided vital support to expel Libya from the Tibesti mountains in Chad, also believed to have significant uranium reserves. The final victory, which evicted Libya from Chadian territory altogether, and crucially the desert border region between them known as the Aozou strip, would not have been possible without significant military support from France and the US. The Reagan provided Chad with much more effective weaponry, including the same Stinger anti-air missiles they gave to their future enemies in Afghanistan. The US had more far reaching ambitions in the conflict, seeing Chad as a weapon that could be used to unseat Gadaffi altogether.

Since the late 80s the conflict has been ostensibly resolved, with Libya defeated and Chadian control over the disputed territories internationally recognised. However, Libyan interest in Chadian politics has not waned, with Gadaffi repeatedly attempting to court Chadian leaders as part of his greater efforts to bring about African unity with himself in a leading position.

The Tibesti mountains seen from the international space station

As I noted in a previous post, France retains a huge interest in controlling its former colonies in Africa, including Chad. Chadian uranium is a major strategic concern for an imperialist power so dependent on nuclear energy. The fact that France, the guiding hand behind Chadian forces, was involved in a proxy conflict with Libya for decades is not well known. The whole episode was a war which I had never heard of before I began looking into the causes of the current conflict. Given the fact that Libya renounced many of its nuclear ambitions as part of its deal to regain the support of the west a few years ago, and that it was defeated in Chad, uranium is not a plausible single cause for the conflict between Libya and the Euro-American powers. However, if we look at the constellation of factors and strategic interests that came to make Libya the next target for their war machine, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the existence of a state that’s strong financially and militarily, and is not controlled by the western powers, on the border of Chad is something that wasn’t long-term tolerable for the imperial masters of Paris.


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