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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
IAEA Report Raises Suspicions on Syrian Site
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Peter Crail

A Syrian facility destroyed by Israel last year could have been a nuclear reactor, a Nov. 19 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report determined. Although the IAEA has not completed its investigation, its early findings appear to support U.S. claims made in April that Syria was constructing a nuclear reactor in secret with North Korean assistance at a site called Dair al Zour. (See ACT, May 2008.)

According to the report, the investigation faces serious challenges due to the bombing of the facility by Israel in September 2007 and the subsequent bulldozing and construction over the site by Syria. (See ACT, November 2007.) Moreover, due to the lack of information provided to the agency regarding the facility, IAEA inspectors did not arrive until nearly 10 months after the facility was destroyed.

In spite of these challenges, the IAEA has uncovered evidence that potentially points to undeclared Syrian nuclear activities, including the presence of uranium particles found at the site and Syrian procurement activities consistent with the construction of a reactor.

IAEA Discovers Traces of Uranium

One of the key pieces of evidence uncovered during the IAEA inspection of Dair al Zour was the presence of a "significant number of natural uranium particles" in some of the samples taken from the site. The agency noted that this uranium was produced through chemical processing and was therefore man-made. Speaking in regard to the uranium particles, a senior UN official said during a Nov. 19 background briefing, "[T]hat kind of material should not be there." The official further noted that the size of the particles was "extremely small," making it more difficult to tell its exact composition and therefore its potential purpose.

The possible origin of any man-made uranium particles is far from clear. Syria pursued a small-scale effort to extract yellowcake uranium from phosphates in technical cooperation programs with the IAEA during the 1980s and 1990s. Yellowcake uranium is chemically processed uranium ore and is the result in one of the first steps in manufacturing nuclear fuel.

According to the agency, financial difficulties prevented these uranium-extraction projects from moving beyond the experimental stage. It is unclear whether Syria has pursued any undeclared efforts to fuel a nuclear reactor. An unclassified 2005 CIA report to Congress judged that, "in 2004 Syria continued to develop civilian nuclear capabilities which may also be potentially applicable to a weapons program," including uranium-extraction technology. This judgment did not appear in subsequent annual unclassified reports to Congress in 2006 and 2007.

If the U.S. intelligence assessment of the design of the alleged Syrian reactor is correct, such a plant would be able to operate on natural uranium fuel, which requires only limited steps beyond yellowcake uranium to purify it into uranium dioxide and fashion it into metal fuel rods. During an April 24 briefing, U.S. intelligence agencies claimed that the facility was a reactor based on the design of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. The senior UN official surmised that the uranium particles could have been reactor fuel but that further analysis was needed to come to any conclusion.

Damascus claims that the uranium came from Israel. In a Nov. 11 response to the agency's findings, Syria alleged that "the only explanation" for the presence of the uranium particles "is that they were contained in the missiles that were dropped from the Israeli planes onto the building."

Although some types of munitions contain depleted uranium, the senior UN official stated that "not one single depleted uranium particle has been found so far."

Activities Consistent With a Reactor

A number of other verification activities undertaken by the agency have also suggested that the Dair al Zour facility was a nuclear reactor. Making use of available satellite imagery of the facility prior to its destruction, the agency assessed that its size and layout were similar to those of a reactor. The IAEA also noted that a pumping facility on the Euphrates River that still remains after the facility's destruction provides a pumping capacity "adequate for a reactor [of] the size referred to" by U.S. intelligence.

The agency has also sought clarification regarding Syrian procurement activities that the IAEA judged "could support the construction and operation of a nuclear reactor." The report cautioned that it was possible that such equipment was intended for a non-nuclear use.

Lastly, the report stated that the agency has requested visits to three additional sites in Syria that may have installations "of relevance to the activities" at Dair al Zour. The IAEA determined from satellite imagery that Syria landscaped these sites and removed large containers shortly after the agency's request. The senior UN official noted Nov. 19 that the agency did not have any information suggesting that any of these locations were involved in producing fuel for a reactor or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from a reactor.

A reprocessing capability is necessary to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to use in nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community judged that the Dair al Zour facility was intended to produce this spent fuel. The 2005 CIA report assessed that Syria was developing hot cell facilities, which can be used to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

Investigation Hampered by Bombing, Syria

The agency report stressed that its investigation was "severely hampered" by Israel's bombing of the facility and "the late provision of information" regarding the site. Following the destruction of the facility and media speculation that it was a nuclear reactor, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei called on any state with information regarding the facility to share it with the agency. Nearly eight months had passed between the time that Israel destroyed the facility and when the United States provided information to the IAEA in April.

In the months following the bombing, Syria plowed over the site and erected new buildings whose purpose is unclear. The agency stated that both the bombing and the removal of the remains has made the investigation "more difficult and complex."

The IAEA has also been hampered by Syria's failure to fully cooperate with its requests. Although Damascus provided full access to the Dair al Zour site, it has not fulfilled the agency's requests to turn over documentation regarding the purpose of the destroyed facility to back up claims that the building was a military installation of a non-nuclear function. Moreover, Syria has rebuffed agency requests for additional visits to Syria and inspections of the three additional sites.

Despite the current difficulties faced by the agency in carrying out its investigation, the senior UN official said Nov. 19 that the agency is unlikely to carry out a special inspection in the near future. Special inspections invoke a rarely used legal authority mandating that a state provide the agency with additional access to information and locations beyond those covered in routine inspections. This authority may be invoked either in cases in which there is the possibility of a loss or removal of nuclear material or in which the IAEA cannot ensure that safeguards are applied to all nuclear activities and material in a state based on the information that state has provided. The IAEA Board of Governors determined in 1992 that special inspections should only occur on "rare occasions."

The board has invoked its special inspections authority twice in its history. The first was carried out in 1992 at the invitation of Romania to clarify nuclear activities carried out under the ousted regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. In the second case, it mandated a special inspection in North Korea in 1993 following a discrepancy in North Korea's nuclear accounting. Pyongyang refused to comply with the inspection, resulting in the board referring the issue to the UN Security Council and a tense standoff.

In addition to the agency's investigation, the United States has stated that it will pursue answers regarding any North Korean involvement in a Syrian nuclear program within six-way talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program. (See ACT, October 2007.) North Korea has been reluctant to discuss this topic but has committed to Washington that no such assistance is ongoing and that none will occur in the future. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)