by Robert Kelley
The UK’s former ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Peter Jenkins, has done us the service of calling into question the methods by which the Agency’s inspection team may have obtained or collected the uranium particles that contributed importantly to its conclusion that the building destroyed by Israeli missiles in 2007 at Dair Alzour “was very likely a nuclear reactor.” He has urged that the Agency ask an impartial figure, such as former IAEA director general Hans Blix, to constitute an expert team to review the inspection data and other related information.
I join in this appeal, as I think Jenkins has made a strong case why the file needs to be reviewed. Based on my own knowledge and experience, however, I would not confine the review to how the traces of nuclear material were collected at the site. I would also strongly recommend reviewing the analysis that was made by the IAEA of those particles, especially the Agency’s assessment that there was only a “low probability” that the source of the uranium derived from the Israeli missiles that destroyed building. That assessment also contributed significantly to the conclusion cited above. In my opinion, the analysis should have been reported to the IAEA Board of Governors as “inconclusive.”
It is indeed possible, as IAEA managers concluded, that the source of the particles could have come from natural uranium fuel waiting to be loaded into the alleged reactor at Al Kibar at the moment of Israel’s attack. But, as Jenkins pointed out, they also possibly originated from cross-contamination of IAEA samples, or from earth-penetrating bombs used in that attack, or even from the deliberate introduction of uranium particles into the Israeli munitions precisely in order to “plant” evidence of a nuclear facility in the event of an IAEA or other independent inspection following the attack.
In its defense, Syria insisted that the particles collected by the IAEA indeed derived from what it referred to as “the missiles” that destroyed the building. But the IAEA rejected that explanation (although it mistakenly adopted the notion that “missiles” were the delivery vehicle of the munitions). “There is a low probability that the uranium was introduced by the use of missiles [sic] as the isotopic and chemical composition and the morphology of the particles are all inconsistent with what would be expected from the use of uranium based missiles [sic],” it asserted.
But the Agency should not have been so dismissive.
It appears that the Agency’s analysis of the particles was based on the erroneous assumption that the Israeli bombs had to have been constructed with depleted uranium. For reasons that remain unclear, the analysis appeared to exclude the possibility that the munitions were made from natural uranium. In other words, the fact that the inspectors found only natural uranium particles—and the absence of depleted uranium particles—at the site excluded, at least in the minds of the Agency’s managers, the possibility that those particles derived from Israeli munitions.
Indeed, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks about a briefing given by an IAEA official to the U.S. Mission to the IAEA:
The IAEA official] noted that natural uranium was not used in munitions, and the uranium is typically depleted (DU) with 0.2 wt. U-235. Other [alloying] elements typically used in munitions (Ti, Nb, Mo) were also not found. [The IAEA official] said that larger fragments of uranium would be expected if the uranium was introduced via a munition. (Comment: The assessment [the IAEA official] presented was a direct result of the experts meeting that U.S. and other forensics experts participated in earlier this month.)
This is not the only time that IAEA officials have stated their assumption that, if the uranium found at the site is not depleted, then it could not have come from the Israeli munitions. Similar statements have appeared in a number of Board reports.
But that assumption and the conclusion that followed it are incorrect. They fail to take account of the fact that natural uranium, of which Israel has an abundance based on what is known about its nuclear program, can be used as a strong nose in an earth-penetrating bomb (of the kind that was used at Dair Alzour) with precisely the same effectiveness as depleted uranium.
(And, as noted above, the assumption also fails to account for the possibility that the Israeli munitions were tainted with natural uranium in anticipation of a future inspection.)
The specification cited by the IAEA official in his briefing is, in fact, a U.S. specification for the depleted uranium it has used in conventional weapons (mostly designed to penetrate tanks and other armored targets). The U.S. relies on depleted uranium in major part because, given the sheer size of its nuclear program, it has so much of that metal stockpiled and available for use. But what is true of U.S. uranium-based conventional munitions does not necessarily apply to Israel’s use of uranium metal about which the IAEA has said it has no independent information. (So far as is known, the Agency has never investigated the residues of Israeli munitions used in Lebanon or Gaza despite internal suggestions that it do so.)
The uranium particles that would result from armor-piercing munitions of the kind used by U.S. forces in the wars against Serbia and Iraq would be globular in nature. But the penetrators used at Al Kibar would have been designed to penetrate deep into the earth, not to penetrate tank armor. Uranium particles of any kind—depleted or not—that were the residue of earth-penetrating munitions would necessarily have a very different morphology than those found from tank armor penetrators used against Serbian or Iraqi armor because they would have been smothered by the earth at the instant of detonation and formed at much lower temperatures. Indeed, they would be similar to those found at Al Kibar. The fact that the Agency assumed that the uranium particles from ground-penetrating uranium munitions would have the same morphology as those from armor-piercing depleted uranium munitions also raises serious questions about the soundness of the analysis.
There are other questions that deserve attention. For example, the IAEA’s analysis of the water lines that purportedly would in the future have supplied cooling water to the bombed building ignored a number of relevant features. Meanwhile the tons of graphite that should have been present at the site, if indeed it was a nuclear plant under construction, were strangely missing. In addition, the IAEA reports that Syria had attempted to buy tons of barite, presumably to have been added to the building’s concrete to contain radiation. But the analysis failed to report that no barite was found in the concrete samples it collected. The IAEA also reported finding stainless steel particles in the remains, suggesting that it was somehow indicative of the existence of a reactor. But stainless steel is ubiquitous in modern technology, such as the precision-guided bombs that were dropped on the building.
Despite all of these uncertainties and inconsistencies—notably the basic assumption that any munitions would have had to have been made from depleted uranium—IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, has spoken with confidence about his Agency’s conclusion that the building destroyed at the Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor.
We did not have as much information as we wanted. Instead we have sufficient information to draw conclusion. That is why I drew conclusion on Syria, and I do not regret it.
It would have been much preferable the Agency had collected more information—especially on the military use of uranium metal in conventional earth- and armor-penetrating munitions and Israel’s nuclear program—before reaching a conclusion.
The IAEA’s ability to verify implementation of nuclear non-proliferation agreements, including the 2013 Joint Program of Action between the P5+1 and Iran, is beyond question. As presently constituted, however, the Agency simply lacks the expertise needed in the areas of military technology and site analysis. Thus, in addition to reviewing the Syria file, the Agency should involve the UN Panel of Experts on Iran in helping analyze any military information, including the allegations surrounding the “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) issue, that may emerge under a still-to-be-completed comprehensive agreement. This, indeed, is the UN Panel’s mission. Its members are far better qualified in a broad range of military matters than the IAEA’s safeguards staff.
Also requiring greater attention is the confidentiality with which the Agency’s analytical work is handled.
In the Syrian case, the sampling results were leaked to the press some 10 days before they were presented to Damascus, according to the U.S. mission in Vienna. This was both improper and unfair. Having been taken by surprise, Syria was pilloried in the media well before it could defend itself. It took time for government scientists to work out that the particles of natural uranium could have come from other sources—including Israeli munitions, deliberate contamination, or IAEA sampling procedures—rather than from natural uranium fuel waiting to be loaded into the alleged reactor at Al Kibar. A review of the latter conclusion is in order.