by Peter Jenkins
What I wrote earlier this month about the reasons to doubt the wisdom of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board’s decision to find Syria non-compliant with its IAEA safeguards agreement led to contact with a retired senior inspector.
This ex-inspector has extensive expertise in the field of gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors (GRs) and is very familiar with the North Korean exemplar of this type, which the Syrian reactor at Dair Alzour is said to have resembled.
Access to this specialized knowledge has driven me to the conclusion that there is a high degree of uncertainty as to whether the structure destroyed by an Israeli raid in September 2007 housed a nuclear reactor. In light of that uncertainty, I question whether adequate reason existed for the Board to find Syria non-compliant for non-declaration of the destroyed structure to the IAEA.
Sources of Uncertainty
The report to the Board that led to the non-compliance finding is GOV/2011/30 of May 24, 2011. In it one reads that “notwithstanding the loss of substantial information, after considering the initial allegations and Syria’s responses thereto, and considering all information available to the Agency, the Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor.”
The “initial allegations” are summarized earlier in 2011/30.They were, inter alia, that the reactor was of the gas-cooled graphite-moderated type, had been built with the assistance of the DPRK, and was not yet operational at the time of the Israeli attack. (At a background briefing in Washington DC in April 2008 a senior US official stated that the intelligence community assessed the purpose of the reactor to be the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons but added that they had low confidence in that judgment.)
Because all debris from the Israeli raid had been cleared by the time an IAEA inspection team got to Dair Alzour in June 2008, the team had to base its assessment of the validity of those allegations on three things:
- Environmental samples taken during that visit
- A judgment as to the suitability of the site for the operation of a GR
- A judgment as to the credibility of Syria’s input into the IAEA investigation.
2011/30 informs the Board that the inspection team found at Dair Alzour “a significant number” of man-made natural uranium (aU) particles, and traces of graphite and stainless steel.
In fact, according to my ex-inspector contact, as well as an unchallenged Syrian statement in GOV/2008/60 of November 19, 2008, only three particles of aU were found. In the ex-inspector’s opinion, a far greater number should have been found if an initial load of natural uranium fuel (over 50 tons) was already on site in September 2007. If, on the other hand, fuel was not yet on site, there should have been surprise that any aU particles were found, because none of the non-fuel components of the alleged reactor would have contained aU.
Of possible alternative explanations for the presence of those three aU particles, one would be that they came from the clothing of visitors to the site, including the Agency inspectors. Such “cross-contamination” is a frequent occurrence.
Another would be that they came from the munitions used by Israel in September 2007. That was the explanation put forward by Syria. The Agency rejected it on the grounds that the Agency sample showed natural, not depleted uranium. But the nose of deep-penetrating munitions can be hardened by natural and not just depleted uranium.
A third possibility would be that the discovery of three aU particles was a freak result. After all, those particles were found in only one of several samples collected on June 23, 2008. The sample was analyzed by only one laboratory, not two or more as normally. And procedural questions surround its collection.
As for the graphite, the ex-inspector says that the few particles found in June 2008 were not of reactor-grade graphite but of naturally occurring graphite (a distinction made in none of the IAEA reports). He adds that the destruction of the core of a DRRK-type GR (which contains over 600 tons of graphite) should have left a very large residue of reactor-grade graphite on site. It should also have led to a protracted blaze. But no traces of a blaze were found on June 23, 2008.
For their part, the stainless steel particles could have come from numerous components of whatever structure(s) Israel destroyed. It is unreasonable to think of them as a critical indicator. In any case, GR pressure vessels are usually made of carbon steel, not stainless steel.
Suitability of the Site
The ex-inspector disputes the statement in 2011/30 that the configuration of the infrastructure at the site prior to the Israeli raid was consistent with the cooling requirements of the alleged reactor. In particular, he points to the absence of a large cooling tower (or towers) and to the siting of the putative site pump-house. In the case of GRs pump-houses are usually sited much closer than at Dair Alzour, to minimize the risk of inadequate pumping capacity.
He also points to the absence of many of the support buildings that his experience of the North Korean site would have led him to expect. On the evidence of satellite imagery, there was also a puzzling lack of activity at the site between 2003 and 2007 (as well as a complete loss of commercial satellite coverage between the eve of the Israeli raid and late October 2007).
2011/30 dismisses the Syrian statement that the function of the destroyed building was missile-related on the grounds that “the features of the destroyed building and the site could not have served the purpose claimed.” But the subsequent analysis concentrates on persuading readers that the building and site would have been suitable for the alleged reactor – not on explaining why they could not have served a missile-related purpose.
Time for a Review?
To avoid trying the patience of readers I have focused only on what seems to me the most salient of many reasons for worrying that the Syria non-compliance finding may have been mistaken, in effect a miscarriage of justice.
Justice is always and everywhere desirable. Where the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime is concerned, justice is essential.
Many Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) resent the discrimination that they perceive at the heart of the NPT and the lukewarm commitment of the beneficiaries of that discrimination to fulfilling one of their key obligations under the treaty. NNWS resentment will only grow if they come to believe that some parties are less than scrupulous in the judgments they make on nuclear safeguards compliance, including related evidential issues.
In this instance justice requires that the Board review its June 2011 finding. I suggest that the IAEA director general volunteer, or the Board request that a highly respected, impartial figure—for example, Hans Blix, who was director general from 1981 to 1997—be asked to review the Syrian inspection data and other related information, with the help of a small team of experts, and to report his findings to the Board.