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More on Syrian Reactor Bombing; From an Informed Reader

by juan cole (reposted)
From a Sunday, April 27, 2008 entry on Informed Comment, Juan Cole's blog

More on Syrian Reactor Bombing;
From an Informed Reader

An informed reader writes:

What little information provided in the CIA videotape concerning the destruction of the purported Syrian reactor only provokes more questions.

The alleged reactor is described, because of its dimensions and shape, as a duplicate of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon. The reactor at Yongbyon is a rough copy of an old British design. It is graphite-moderated and cooled with gaseous carbon dioxide. Its core is composed of a large number of highly-purified graphite blocks. For example, each of the first two Magnox reactors at Windscale in the UK used 2,000 tons of graphite. Even if this purported Syrian reactor vessel were half the size of one of the original UK reactors, it would require roughly 1,000 tons of graphite. That's 14,400 cubic feet of highly-purified graphite. Would all official entities fail to notice the production and transfer of that amount of highly-refined graphite to Syria?

The voice-over on the CIA videotape asserts that the reactor in Syria was "nearly completed." If the plant were "nearly completed," those graphite blocks would have been substantially in place. Bombing and fire would have spread bits of carbon all over the site, or scattered whole blocks of graphite around the site. The "after" photos didn't seem to indicate that this happened.

If the reactor were substantially complete, neutron-absorbing boron-10 carbide (or possibly cadmium alloy) control rods would have been installed. Had those been burned or exploded in the bombing, those, too, would have left a chemical signature on the hills surrounding the site and in the prevailing winds. As far as I know, this hasn't been discussed.

Then, too, there is the matter of fuel rods. Syria is reported not to have uranium yellowcake stocks in appreciable quantities. (One particularly large phosphorite field, the Charkiet formation, is known to contain uranium, but the phosphate fertilizer plant built to process that ore was done by a Swedish company which would certainly alert the IAEA if there were non-compliant diversion. Moreover, Syria has cooperated with the IAEA in the past to develop its commercial uranium extraction processes, but those have not progressed, according to SIPRI.) There's no evidence presented that Syria has built fuel processing and fuel rod assembly facilities. That would suggest production elsewhere, and such production can be tracked. So, if it was almost complete, where are the fuel rods?

The primary weapons benefit of such a reactor is its ability to be refueled on the fly, so to speak (it's necessary to get the fuel rods out of the reactor before the optimum quantity of plutonium-239 is degraded by neutron capture to less suitable isotopes), so, why does U.S. intelligence say they have "low confidence" that the plutonium that might be produced is for nuclear weapons? It must be that Syria does not have the necessary fuel processing, fuel rod assembly and spent fuel reprocessing plants, and there's no evidence of bomb-manufacturing facilities (all this infrastructure should ideally go forward concurrent with fuel production to produce a bomb in the shortest period of time); does this suggest that the purpose of the facility might not be nuclear in nature, or that it was nuclear, but would have had a non-weapons purpose? If there's no evidence for the existence of the rest of a weapons-making complex, how credible is the claim of "near completion" of a reactor which is well-suited for producing plutonium?

So far, the government's primary evidence seems to be a photo of a North Korean who is reputed to be NK nuclear scientist Chon Chibu, standing next to someone "believed to be his Syrian counterpart" (quote from the London Times). That photo, as well as others, likely was provided by the Mossad, so its provenance is in question. Given that the Israelis bombed the site, one can't evade the reality that they're an interested party in the matter.

What is shocking in this assertion is the lack of physical evidence available for independent inspection, and the apparent complete failure of U.S. authorities to seek international inspection via the IAEA before the Israelis bombed the site in question, despite the fact that the U.S. was apparently aware of Israeli intentions well ahead of time. Syria has been a ratified signatory of the NPT since 1969, making it obligated to accept inspections. If, as the CIA asserts, the Syrian facility has been under construction since 2001, there was more than ample time to inform the IAEA of a signatory's possible failure to abide by the treaty. Repeated unannounced overflights of Syrian territory by Israeli jets in recent years indicates long-term planning of this mission.

Possibilities? The Bush administration might prefer to use this event to imply nuclear weapons production on Iran's part, because it is an ally of Syria, or the claims of North Korean assistance might provide cover for eventually abandoning the six-nation talks involving North Korea and provoking them in some way. Suggestions that the Israelis wanted to use the bombing raid to penetrate and compromise Syria's Russian-built air defenses preparatory to a future attack on Iran are not wholly out of the realm of possibility.

It's possible that the Syrians were building a bomb-fuel reactor with North Korean assistance, and imagined, wrongly, that they could escape detection. Certainly, North Korea's economy is so awful that they would be desperate for revenues. But, there's no physical evidence of such activity which has been independently verified, and the Bush administration's record on this sort of thing is, well, dubious, at best. Nor can one discount Syria's previous cooperation with the IAEA, and the necessary evidence would have come from an IAEA inspection. It's also possible that the Syrians were building something military in nature that they wanted kept secret, and which had nothing to do with a nuclear program, but which alarmed the Israelis, anyway, such as an early warning facility, ground-based laser, something along those lines.

The CIA video depends heavily upon computer models, and those models add substantial pieces of equipment not shown in the photos of the "nearly completed" facility. Remember that Colin Powell depended upon artists' renderings of "mobile bioweapons labs" instead of physical evidence, and that Rumsfeld used cartoonish illustrations to show lavish al-Qaeda complexes, replete with living quarters, office space, truck parking and ventilating systems, like the Islamist equivalent of Cheyenne Mountain, buried inside Tora Bora. Those, too, were never found.

One more final consideration: the Yongbyon reactor, from the descriptions by inspectors in 1994, is a real hunk of junk, by contemporary standards. The inspectors could tell from the condition of the spent fuel rods that there were many operating problems and shutdowns because of problems. Nuclear safety at the site was marginal to non-existent. The bomb test using plutonium from it was very likely a fizzle yield. If the Syrians got a duplicate copy of the Yongbyon reactor, as the CIA claims, they were very likely wasting their money.

Cole here: See also John W. Farley's piece on this subject in CounterPunch.

posted by Juan Cole @ 4/27/2008 02:01:00 AM

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