If Not Now, When?  Time for an IAEA Special Inspection in Syria

by David Albright and Paul Brannan

September 6, 2010

Glyn Davies, the United States Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, said recently that the time for a special inspection in Syria is fast approaching. Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in the Dair Alzour region before it was bombed by Israeli jets in September 2007. In an August 6, 2010 Wall Street Journal report, Davies noted that it has been “years since the IAEA had its one crack at this. And it came away with more questions than answers.” Indeed, Syria continues to deny it even had a reactor under construction. Although Syria allowed the IAEA to partially inspect this site once in June 2008, it has answered very few of the IAEA’s questions. It has repeatedly denied the IAEA’s requests for additional information or access again to the reactor site and to a number of other suspect sites.

Davies added, “We as shareholders in the system need to talk about this and find the way forward for the Agency and to help the [IAEA’s] Director General.” Because of Syria’s refusal to cooperate, and the possibility that the reactor was part of a nuclear weapons effort, Davies is right. The IAEA Secretariat and its Board of Governors should start the process of calling for a special inspection. Without adequate Syrian cooperation, the November 2010 Board of Governors meeting should call for one. Why a Special Inspection

A special inspection is necessary in order to gain a better understanding of Syria’s undeclared activities, some of which may continue. Syria has refused to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, an advanced inspection agreement aimed at discovering undeclared nuclear facilities and materials. Under the traditional safeguards agreement signed by Syria under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the few tools to investigate undeclared nuclear activities is the special inspection.1 The IAEA can call for this type of inspection, although in practice the Board of Governors will need to approve it.

The IAEA does not often call for a special inspection—this is reserved for extreme situations where a particularly egregious safeguards violation is suspected and where the member state has demonstrated a lack of cooperation. In 1993, concerned that North Korea had conducted undeclared plutonium reprocessing campaigns, the IAEA requested a special inspection after North Korea denied access to suspect sites. That a NPT signatory could separate plutonium in covert reprocessing campaigns and stonewall the IAEA threatened not only the international community but also the legitimacy of the IAEA and the value of verification measures that NPT parties must adhere to.

Although not as urgent as the North Korean example, the current situation with Syria also warrants a special inspection. The Syrian reactor project stands as one of the most egregious cases of nuclear proliferation. Since the IAEA began to investigate in 2008, Syria has largely refused to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation. If the IAEA cannot make any further progress in its investigation, its credibility is eroded and verification in general is undermined.

As more time goes by, it will become inherently more difficult for the IAEA to conduct its investigations into Syria’s activities. A special inspection will prevent Syria from further hiding its activities related to the reactor construction project. The passage of time may also make Syria more comfortable stonewalling IAEA requests for access to certain people, facilities, or documents. Syria can, for example, claim that certain individuals have left the country or died. The sooner a special inspection takes place, the fewer opportunities Syria will have to cover up evidence about the project.

Although the reactor has been destroyed, and despite the manner in which that occurred, the IAEA needs to provide the requisite international verification that Syria does not still have undeclared nuclear facilities or materials, whether of North Korean-origin or not. The IAEA Remains Suspicious

The IAEA has good reason to remain suspicious about Syria’s nuclear activities and North Korea’s role in supplying Syria’s reactor project. The photographic evidence of the reactor site is the most compelling. However, the IAEA developed other evidence as well that points to undeclared nuclear activities and facilities.

The most striking proof is an April 2008 U.S. intelligence community video briefing on the reactor. The video shows the likely location of the reactor core and spent fuel pond. It also shows the extraordinary efforts taken by the Syrians to camouflage the building.2

The IAEA’s June 2008 inspection at the reactor site uncovered traces of chemically-processed uranium, which had properties implying it could have originally been uranium metal. This form of uranium is used in a North Korean gas-graphite reactor. Syria claimed that the uranium originated from Israeli anti-armor weapons, but the IAEA found no evidence supporting this claim. The IAEA assessed that there is a low probability that the uranium was introduced by the use of missiles. It found that 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 munitions. Moreover, the uranium was found in an out-of-the-way place at the site, which raised questions about whether Syria had purposely cleaned the site in order to prevent the IAEA from discovering traces of materials linked to a reactor.

The IAEA also found undeclared chemically-processed uranium at Syria’s Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR). Syria subsequently provided information on previously unreported small-scale uranium conversion and irradiation activities at the MNSR.

A reactor requires uranium fuel. Did North Korea provide natural uranium fuel or was Syria, with North Korean help, building its own fuel fabrication plant? Perhaps, North Korea provided the initial fuel while Syria built a fuel fabrication plant that could provide the fuel for later core loadings. The uranium particles found at the reactor site imply that some uranium had been delivered to the site. Nonetheless, the IAEA has little information about the fuel for this reactor. Kyodo news reported in February 2010 that “North Korea provided about 45 tons of ‘yellowcake’ uranium to Syria in September of 2007 for production of fuel for an undeclared reactor.” ISIS has learned, however, that the IAEA does not have any evidence that confirms this media report.

In 2008, a member state communicated the location of three suspect sites to the IAEA. The IAEA states in its safeguards reports that these sites may be of relevance to the activities at the reactor site. ISIS learned during April 2008 briefings by U.S. government experts and officials that some U.S. intelligence information indicated that one of the suspect sites might be a fuel fabrication facility. A senior official close to the IAEA said in an interview on November 16, 2009 that the IAEA received information that showed that equipment was seen coming and going between the reactor and these three sites. ISIS has also learned that the IAEA has identified a fourth suspect site. Syria denied the IAEA’s request to visit these sites. Adding to suspicions, shortly after the request for a visit, IAEA analysis of satellite imagery taken of these locations indicated that landscaping activities and the removal of large containers took place.

The IAEA’s investigation of Syria’s procurement activities aimed at supplying its nuclear program revealed further discrepancies. An investigation of Syrian procurement patterns can be an extremely difficult undertaking. Based on interviews with European intelligence officials, Syria’s sensitive procurements are often exceptionally difficult to ascertain. Syria has used a variety of techniques to disguise its sensitive overseas purchases. Moreover, a direct transfer of goods on North Korean ships or planes would have left few detectable traces. Nonetheless, the IAEA has uncovered suspicious information.

Regarding equipment that could be tied to the site, the IAEA discovered that Syria had told the IAEA and suppliers different versions of the equipment’s end use. The IAEA also learned that Syria had procured “large quantities of barium sulphate.”3 This material is used to increase the effectiveness of concrete in stopping penetrating radiation from a reactor core or irradiated fuel being processed in hot cells to extract plutonium. Syria denies any intended use in a reactor or hot cells, but the size of the order remains suspicious.

The IAEA also learned of Syria’s purchase of large quantities of graphite from China, but it was unable to tie this graphite to the reactor. North Korea has made large quantities of graphite for its own reactors, so perhaps North Korea supplied the graphite itself.

The IAEA detected graphite in samples taken at the reactor site but in small concentrations. It could not determine if this graphite came from the core of the reactor. But given the widespread public discussions of the importance of sampling for graphite prior to the inspection and suspicions that Syria thoroughly cleaned the site, small graphite concentrations remain inconclusive.

Three years after the bombing of the reactor, the nature of North Korean assistance to this reactor project still remains unclear, including persons involved, technical or design support given, and equipment and materials provided. North Korea is generally believed to have supplied or organized the bulk of the procurements for the reactor, but these transfers remain extremely difficult to reconstruct. North Korea may have also organized the purchase of goods for the reactor via China. A Chinese office of Namchongang Trading Corporation (NCG), a North Korean trading company subordinate to its General Bureau of Atomic Energy, was involved in purchases of sensitive material linked to the construction of the nuclear reactor in Syria.4 IAEA officials have speculated that Syria depended upon direct exports from North Korea for most of the reactor components, but if it wanted higher quality equipment, it shopped elsewhere for the goods, either relying on NCG or its own procurement network.

With its investigations inconclusive, the IAEA needs greater access to sites and more cooperation from Syria in order to resolve its outstanding questions about Syria’s nuclear program.

Nature of a Syrian Special Inspection

The IAEA will need to address several issues before calling for a special inspection. In its effort, assistance from member states is critical. In addition, a special inspection will likely include several sites in Syria.

The IAEA needs far more satellite imagery from the time period immediately following the bombing. Member states should assist the IAEA by providing relevant satellite imagery of the destroyed building site from the morning of the bombing up until the remnants of the building were buried. Until the U.S. intelligence community’s video briefing in April 2008 on the destroyed reactor building, the first publicly available satellite image of the site after the bombing came after ISIS successfully located the reactor building. ISIS released the report on October 23, 2007 and the first new satellite image was taken the next morning. In the U.S. briefing, several satellite images from before October 24, 2007, but after the bombing, show the bombed building at various stages of deconstruction.5 Commercial satellite images from immediately after the bombing may exist, but governments would have most likely purchased them on an exclusive basis. If they did do so, they should now share the images with the IAEA. But these images cannot compare to the quantity and quality of U.S. imagery, and the United States should declassify additional imagery for use by the IAEA, just as it did in the case of the 1993 North Korean special inspection.

A special inspection should include excavation aimed at finding rubble at the reactor site and more sampling for evidence of a reactor project and any associated fuel cycle activities. In one of the images in April 2008 video briefing, bulldozers can be seen pushing soil excavated from a nearby hill down into the remains of the building, which likely still contained parts of the reactor and spent fuel pond.6 Syria later constructed a new building overtop of the existing site.7 If Syria has not performed any excavation activities under the roof of the new structure in the last two and a half years, the remains of heavy reactor structures would still remain buried at the site. A special inspection should include excavation of the earth around or possibly underneath the new building constructed after the bombing. Excavation was slated for the 1993 special inspection in North Korea, so its use in this case has a precedent. The IAEA should also insist on taking samples of the remaining debris or rubble at the site or located elsewhere. Syria did not allow the IAEA to sample any of the rubble during the June 2008 inspection.

A special focus of a special inspection should be the sites that may be associated with uranium storage, uranium conversion, or fuel fabrication. A special inspection should include visits to the three additional suspect sites, and perhaps the fourth one. At these sites, the IAEA should be able to freely take samples, interview key personnel, and order excavation as necessary.

The irradiated fuel from this type of reactor is difficult to store long-term in water. As a result, this irradiated fuel is usually chemically processed and the plutonium separated. If Syria planned to make nuclear weapons, this step is required. Little information exists about any Syrian plans for a spent fuel reprocessing facility. A special inspection should seek to clarify what Syria planned to do with the spent fuel from the reactor.

With a lack of clarity on procurements for the reactor, a special inspection can fill significant gaps in what is known about the reactor construction project and its associated fuel cycle. If Syria made purchases for the reactor in Europe or Asia, a special inspection can help identify them.


Syria may have intended that the reactor only be for peaceful purposes and it could have ultimately planned to place it under IAEA safeguards. But this possibility appears less likely in view of Syria’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA and its continual denials of any reactor project despite substantial evidence to the contrary. In the worst case, Syria’s reactor was part of a nuclear weapons program that it has not abandoned. It may merely seek to outlast the international community’s concern and restart its quest for nuclear weapons at some point in the future.

The time to start the process of calling for a special inspection has arrived. The first step is for member states to discuss this issue at the September Board of Governors meeting and the upcoming General Conference. These meetings should make clear to Syria that patience is running out. At the subsequent November Board of Governors meeting, full debate of a resolution calling for a special inspection in Syria should take place. If Syria still refuses to cooperate, the Board should vote for a special inspection.

1 Syria has a traditional safeguards agreement with the IAEA under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, referred to as an INFCIR/153 safeguards agreement. Article 73 of the INFCIRC/153 agreement states: “The Agreement should provide that the Agency may make special inspections subject to the procedures laid down in paragraph 77 below: (a) In order to verify the information contained in special reports; or (b) If the Agency considers that information made available by the State, including explanations from the State and information obtained from routine inspections, is not adequate for the Agency to fulfill its responsibilities under the Agreement, An inspection shall be deemed to be special when it is either additional to the routine inspection effort provided for in paragraphs 78—82 below, or involves access to information or locations in addition to the access specified in paragraph 76 for ad hoc and routine inspections, or both.”

2Albright and Brannan, The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications, Institute for Science and International Security, May 12, 2008. 3 Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic, Report by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, 5 June 2009: GOV/2009/36 4 U.S. Treasury, United States Designates North Korean Entities and Individuals for Activities Related to North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, TG-840, August 30, 2010. 5 See figure 1 in The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications, op. cit. 6 See figure 11 in The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications, op. cit. 7 New Construction at Syrian Site, Institute for Science and International Security, January 14, 2008.

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