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June 2, 2022
IAEA: Syrian Reactor Explanation Suspect

Peter Crail

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report Feb. 19 indicating that Syria has failed to provide adequate information regarding a destroyed facility the West suspects was once a clandestine nuclear reactor. The agency stated that a Feb. 17 letter it received from Syria in response to questions regarding the site and potentially related locations and activities "did not address most of the questions raised in the agency's communications." In addition, Damascus has only allowed the agency to carry out a single visit to the site of the destroyed facility and has not provided the IAEA with access to additional sites as requested.

Israel destroyed the facility, located at a site called Dair al Zour, in a September 2007 airstrike. In April 2008, U.S. intelligence agencies alleged that the facility had been a nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance and that the reactor was modeled on North Korea's Yongbyon reactor, which Pyongyang used to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons.

The IAEA has called on Israel and other countries to share any information on the destroyed facility, including satellite imagery. Washington briefed the agency in April 2008 on its assessment that the destroyed facility was a nuclear reactor.

Following the Israeli airstrike, Syria razed the site and has since constructed another facility in its place. Damascus claims that the original facility and the new one are military installations that are not nuclear related.

During the agency's initial visit in June 2008, it discovered microscopic uranium particles at the site of the destroyed facility. Although the small size of the particles made extensive analysis difficult, the IAEA indicated that the particles consisted of chemically processed uranium, raising concerns that the site had some nuclear purpose. In regard to the uranium particles, a senior UN official said in November, "[T]hat kind of material should not be there." (See ACT, December 2008.)

The recent report stated that the agency found additional particles as a result of continued analysis of samples from its June 2008 visit. The report also noted that the uranium is "of a type not included in Syria's declared inventory of nuclear material." Syria maintains a Chinese-built miniature research reactor under IAEA safeguards and has conducted small-scale experiments to extract uranium from phosphates.

The potential origin and use of the uranium that was the source of the particles remains unclear. A senior UN official explained during a Feb. 19 background briefing that "the chemical composition and some characteristics could be consistent with uranium used in a nuclear reactor" but further analysis is still needed. Moreover, the official noted that the particles discovered were in the form of uranium oxide, rather than the metallic uranium form used in North Korea's Yongbyon reactor, but left open the possibility that the uranium could have been oxidized as a result of the Israeli airstrike.

Syria claimed that the uranium particles originated from the Israeli munitions used to destroy the facility. The IAEA assessed in its February report, however, that "there is a low probability that the uranium was introduced by the use of missiles." A senior UN official said in November that no depleted uranium particles had been found. (See ACT, December 2008.) Uranium used in munitions is generally in the form of depleted uranium due to its high density. Israel stated in a Dec. 24, 2008, letter to the agency that it "could not have been the source of the uranium particles found on the site of the nuclear reactor."

In addition to the uranium particles discovered in the agency's environmental sampling analysis, a senior UN official said Feb. 19 that some graphite particles were found at the site. The presence of graphite may be significant because North Korea's Yongbyon reactor uses graphite to increase the number of fission reactions in the reactor.

The official noted that because the agency is still analyzing the samples to determine whether the graphite would be of a type used in a reactor, this information was not included in the report.

In order to carry out further analysis of remnants of the facility, the agency has requested that Syria provide access once again to the site and to salvaged equipment and debris from the destroyed facility.

In addition to the analysis carried out at the Dair al Zour site, the agency is also examining Syrian procurement activities that could be consistent with the construction of a nuclear reactor. A senior UN official Feb. 19 said that Syria has acknowledged these procurement efforts but claims that they were not nuclear related.