Last year’s Beirut port explosions, caused by wrongly stored ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the port of the Lebanese capital, were almost unimaginably destructive, leading to the deaths of 200 people, 6,000 others injured and a further 300,000 people made homeless.
The Lebanese authorities have failed to secure the funds needed to repair the damage, estimated at almost $15 billion, and divisions in the country’s political elites have grown to the extent that they cannot agree on a new government.
Meanwhile, popular protests have become part of the nation’s daily routine.
But news this week has indicated that Lebanon could have experienced an even greater disaster in the shape of a nuclear one. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, after a meeting of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council, the highest security and military authority in the country, said on Friday that the German company Combi Lift had discovered “a highly pure nuclear substance” at the Zahrani oil installation 50 km south of Beirut.
Diab, whose cabinet resigned after last August’s port blasts, though it has stayed in office until a new one is formed, vowed to take “quick measures to deal with this matter of great concern”.
According to Ziad Al-Zein, head of the installation, the chemicals were found in eight small containers that weigh less than two kg each. They contain depleted uranium salts that have been stored there since the 1950s when Medreco, a US company then owned by Mobil and Caltex, was running the facility, he told the local media.
The company had administered the site until the late 1980s. The material will now be transferred to the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission, though the latter will need to coordinate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on how to dispose of it.
Meanwhile, Combi Lift has been looking for flammable substances in the wreckage of the Beirut Port since last November on the basis of a $3.6-million agreement with the Lebanese government. Lebanon has yet to pay $2 million, while the German government paid the remaining amount.
Before spotting the nuclear material, the company found more than 50 containers that included “hazardous and dangerous chemical material” at the Beirut Port. Some of them have been in place for more than 30 years. Andreas Kindl, Germany’s ambassador to Beirut, said the company was ready to transfer the materials to Germany.
Last year’s Beirut Port explosions shocked both the Lebanese people and the world, but it seems that people in Lebanon will not be surprised to see similar incidents in future.
“I have no clear idea about these chemicals or their danger. But it is another case of negligence to add to the account of an incompetent government and provide more reasons for an international investigation,” Emad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Salamey said that “there is no escape from forming a new government,” though “conditions are much more difficult than in previous years.”
“At stake is the ability to negotiate an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Lebanon. At the same time, the new government will need to regain public support and international confidence. But the political parties are seeking to cover up any wrongdoing, after being indicted for corruption and held responsible for the Beirut blasts,” Salamey said.
“Others want to ensure endorsements for a 2022 presidential bid as a condition for a new government’s formation. The establishment continues to play the power-sharing game, though this time around the gains are a mere façade.”
Ex-premier and Lebanese prime minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri has been unable to form a new coalition government for almost seven months amid a clash with President Michel Aoun, an ally of the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah group, on the cabinet line-up.
Al-Hariri wants a government that includes 18 independent ministers, which will mean no political force can block his decisions, something which Aoun refuses. Aoun and the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement reportedly want a 20-minister cabinet, in addition to having the right to select six ministers and one Lebanese-Armenian minister.
“I have asked the president to listen to the woes of the people and to give this country its final chance of having a technocratic government that is capable of reform,” Al-Hariri said after meeting Aoun for almost half an hour last week.
This was the 18th meeting between the two political figures. Al-Hariri said that the president “sent me a line-up that grants his team a third of the cabinet seats last night”. But “this is not acceptable.”
The Lebanese presidency said Aoun had not asked Al-Hariri for a “blocking minority” and expressed its “surprise” at the latter’s statement and tone.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Lebanon's nuclear incident