by Peter Jenkins
I have long been puzzled by the discovery of traces of anthropogenic (generated by humans) natural uranium at a Syrian site where Israeli aircraft destroyed (unlawfully) a nuclear reactor in September 2007.
This is why. On October 14, 2007, five weeks after the Israeli raid, The New York Times, citing US and Israeli intelligence sources, reported that the target had been a nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians. It followed from the reactor being under construction, I imagined, that if International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors ever got to the site, they would be unlikely to find traces of anthropogenic natural uranium (aU), since the reactor would not yet have been fuelled.
That belief was reinforced when I read, in the first of several IAEA reports (GOV/2008/60 of December 19, 2008): “The American allegation presented to the Agency for verification referred to a building under construction and not in operation.”
And then I read in the same document: “It is necessary also to draw attention to the fact that the result of the analysis of one sample points to three uranium particles whereas the results of four other samples taken from the same place within a 30-meter range contained no uranium particles.” If reactor fuel had been on site, surely the Israeli raid would have resulted in the presence of far more than three particles, I reasoned.
I realized, of course, that because these sentences appeared in a letter that Syrian officials sent, defensively, to the IAEA on November 11, 2008, they could contain falsehoods. But I thought it unlikely that Syria would state as fact what could easily be shown to be lies.
Moreover, in GOV/2008/60 the IAEA did not contradict these statements. The IAEA secretariat referred to the presence of “a significant number of natural uranium particles,” true, but they did not specify whether all these were anthropogenic. Some could have been naturally occurring, if soil samples had been taken. Also, “a significant number” was unlikely to be the large number to be expected from the destruction of a reactor-load of natural uranium fuel.
Conscious of these oddities, I was thunderstruck when a former IAEA inspector gave me, not long ago, the following account of the origin of the traces of aU.
During the first visit of an IAEA team to the Israeli target site (Dair Alzour) on June 23, 2008, a senior inspector (who has since left the Agency) asked the Syrian escort for permission to use the men’s room in a support building that had not been destroyed. After the team had left the site and returned to their hotel, having taken several samples that Syria had authorized , the senior inspector bragged that he had taken an unauthorized “swipe” of a surface in the men’s room and had placed the swipe in one of his pockets.
On the team’s return to IAEA headquarters, this unauthorized swipe was sent off for analysis by just one member state, not several states as is the norm—a norm respected in the case of the other, authorized samples. Also ignored were IAEA protocols that stipulate that at least two inspectors should always be present when samples are taken, and that swipe materials should be taken from and placed back into clean receptacles, not from or into (possibly contaminated) inspector pockets. In addition, Syria was not informed of the unauthorized swipe and was not given a duplicate of this particular sample, contrary to normal practice.
When the samples came back from analysis, it was on the unauthorized swipe that aU particles had been found. Natural uranium particles found in some authorized samples were not anthropogenic.
If this account is true—and I know of no reason to think it is not—then one hypothesis is that the senior inspector’s swipe material was already contaminated, either deliberately or by accident, when he arrived at the Dair Alzour site, or it became contaminated when placed in his pocket.
An Unsound Conviction?
All this matters for the following reasons.
During the three years that followed the June 2008 visit to Dair Alzour, Syria proved unable to account for the presence of aU particles at the site. Syrian officials suggested that the particles could have come from munitions used in the Israeli raid, but the IAEA assessed the probability of this to be low and accused Syria of failing to cooperate.
In the end the Director General (DG) concluded in May 2011: “It is very likely that the building destroyed at the Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the Agency.” As a result, the Board of Governors found Syria non-compliant with its NPT safeguards agreement for “undeclared construction of a nuclear reactor” and “failure to provide design information for the facility in accordance with Code 3.1 of Syria’s Subsidiary Arrangement.”
The Board’s finding was far from unanimous: 11 out of 35 Board members abstained, and six, including Russia and China, opposed the finding. But the resolution passed and Syria’s non-compliance was subsequently reported to the UN Security Council, as the IAEA statute requires.
Whether at the time of the Israeli raid Syria was in fact under an obligation to declare the reactor depends on whether, by September 2007, Syria had agreed to a change in its safeguarding arrangements (Code 3.1) that required it to declare facilities at the design stage, rather than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material.
The non-compliance finding implies that this change had been agreed. But this is not stated explicitly in the pertinent IAEA report (GOV/2011/30 of 24 May 2011). If by any chance the change had not been agreed, then the only justification for assuming that nuclear material had been, or was about to be introduced, and that Syria had erred in not declaring the reactor at least 180 days before introduction, was the discovery of aU traces at the site. In which case, grounds for uncertainty as to the origin of those aU traces ought to be sufficient cause for the Board to revisit its non-compliance finding. Above is evidence that grounds for uncertainty exist.
If, on the other hand, the change had been agreed, and Syria’s failure to declare the reactor at the design stage does justify the non-compliance finding, then there is a case for the Board inquiring into the extent to which, in June 2008 at Dair Alzour and subsequently, normal safeguarding procedures were disrespected, as detailed above
In any case, it is a sad reflection on the way we live now that in September 2007 Israel violated the UN Charter, and disregarded UN Security Council Resolution 487, with impunity, whereas Syria received a stiff sentence for a breach of its safeguarding arrangements. The West’s addiction to such double standards is unwise.