So it Really was a Reactor in Syria
Written by Asculai, Ephraim INSS Insight No. 81, The Institute for National Security Studies   
Sunday, 23 November 2008

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There are two outstanding issues on the table for the forthcoming IAEA Board of Governors meeting: the nuclear programs of Syria and Iran.

Syria

The IAEA report on the Syrian issue that finally came out on November 19,
2008 gave a detailed summary of its findings but omitted two important
items: the technical details of the sampled uranium particles found in the
vicinity of the Syrian reactor site at Dair Alzour (or al-Kibar, as called
by US reports) and the unequivocal statement that the site housed a nuclear
reactor under construction when it was destroyed on the night of September
6, 2007. By leaving out these two elements, the report gave everyone what it
wanted: Syria and its supporters could happily claim that there was no
reactor at the site, while others could vary in their conclusions from
uncertainty to firm belief that the destruction of the construction
prevented or at least delayed Syria from acquiring a military nuclear
capability. This ambiguity on the part of the IAEA should have been
expected, since it is in line with its organizational culture - try to have
something nice to say about member states.

Not all the technical facts detailed in the report are needed to reach the
conclusion that the installation housed a nuclear reactor that was nearing
operation, much as the US claimed. It is sufficient to note that the report
confirmed that the water pumping capacity was sufficient for removing 25
megawatts of energy. An energy source of this magnitude would need to burn
either fossil or nuclear fuel, or it would have to consume electrical energy
imported to the site. Since the Syrians confirmed "the unreliable and
insufficient electricity supplies in the area," the last option is not
viable. Since it is obvious that this was not a fossil fuel electricity
producing station (and no one claimed that it was) the conclusion is
unequivocal. In addition, a fossil fuel plant would have been constructed
near the Euphrates River for efficiency reasons and not hidden inland, out
of sight. The IAEA chose to state that "While it cannot be excluded that the
building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the
building, as described above, along with the connectivity of the site to
adequate pumping capacity of cooling water, are similar to what may be found
in connection with a reactor site." One cannot but wonder, what could have
possibly been the "non-nuclear use"?

Although not essential for the evaluation, the visit to the site and the
results of the samples taken showed the presence of a few natural uranium
particles that had undergone chemical processing. Natural uranium is used in
the North-Korean-type reactor, assessed by the US to have been constructed
in Syria. The IAEA chose not to divulge the composition and other
characteristics of the uranium particles (information it certainly has,
since it assessed the chemical processes), yet thereby confirmed the
relationship between the particles and nuclear fuel. Otherwise, it would
have certainly noted it. Although the Syrians did their best to clean the
area around the site, they evidently did not do a good enough job and a few
particles remained on the surface, some of which were detected by the very
sensitive analytical methods of the IAEA laboratories.

It is possible that the fact that no graphite particles were found indicates
that the bombs did not penetrate the reactor's core, and the source of the
uranium particles were the fuel rods waiting to be loaded into the core. If
true, this could indicate that the reactor was a short time away from its
startup, when hitting it could already cause environmental damage.

The IAEA Director General reiterates his accusation that "the Agency was
severely hampered in discharging its responsibilities under the NPT and
under Syria's Safeguards Agreement by the unilateral use of force and by the
late provision of information concerning the building at the Dair Alzour
site." One can only speculate what would have been the international
consequences of such a visit to an operating reactor, or much worse, whether
Syria's nuclear program would have been confirmed by a Syrian nuclear
explosion.

Iran

On the same day in November, the periodic IAEA report on Iran was sent to
the Board of Governors. It is a pessimistic report, in which the Director
General states that "Regrettably, as a result of the lack of cooperation by
Iran in connection with the alleged studies and other associated key
remaining issues of serious concern, the Agency has not been able to make
substantive progress on these issues."

As expected, Iran has been proceeding tirelessly with its uranium enrichment
program, in contravention of Security Council resolutions. It has been
enriching uranium up to 5% U-235 enrichment while putting up many more
uranium enrichment gas centrifuge machines in its underground Natanz
facility and testing new, advanced gas centrifuge enrichment machines. It
also prevented the IAEA inspectors from visiting the heavy-water natural
uranium reactor under construction at the Arak site. The IAEA assessed that
"from a review of such [satellite] imagery, the Agency can confirm that
construction of the reactor is continuing."

The Director General concluded his short report by stating that he
"continues to urge Iran to implement all measures required to build
confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme at
the earliest possible date." It is an almost ludicrous statement coming at a
time when almost all cooperation has ground to a halt. Only the bare bones
of the required cooperation under the "Full Scope" safeguards agreement
remain in place. He stated that gone are the commitments to the Additional
Protocol and the modified text of its Subsidiary Arrangements, and any
requests for additional access to sites and people remain unheeded.
Given the data published in the report, the assessment that Iran will have
the potential to obtain 25 kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium by the end
of 2009 (give or take a few months) remains unchanged. It now seems that the
international community is willing to let this happen.

 

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