You are here

Nuclear aspects to the crisis in Syria

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

There are a number of nuclear threads to the unfolding situation in Syria:

  • Concerns are being raised about the potential consequences of a military strike on a small research reactor near Damascus, and about the radiological consequences of military strikes on other sites as well as the potential for nuclear materials to be lost or stolen;
  • Syria was probably constructing a larger research reactor but the site was hit by an Israeli military strike in 2007 and quickly demolished by the Syrian state;
  • Syria's failure to provide information to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to allow comprehensive safeguards inspections adds another sorry chapter to the saga of the international nuclear safeguards system (while the 2007 military strike indicates that Israel has no faith in the safeguards system);
  • Even if the Syrian state was complying with IAEA safeguards requests (for access and information), it is near impossible to maintain a meaningful safeguards regime in the context of widespread conflict (in this case civil war);
  • Syria's repeated attempts to develop nuclear facilities over the decades have, for the most part, been thwarted by political pressure exerted by the US and Israel on potential nuclear supplier states such as Argentina, India and Russia; and
  • Syria may have been the first nation state to advance nuclear weapons ambitions under the guise of a purported interest in nuclear desalination − but it will not be the last.

Russia has warned that a missile strike on Syria could have catastrophic effects if it hits a research reactor near Damascus.[1] "If a warhead, by design or by chance, were to hit the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor [MNSR] near Damascus, the consequences could be catastrophic," a September 5 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The statement calls on the IAEA to "react swiftly" and present IAEA members with "an analysis of the risks linked to possible American strikes on the MNSR and other facilities in Syria". The statement said nearby areas could be contaminated by highly enriched uranium and that it would be impossible to account for the nuclear material after such a strike.

Ambassador Bassam Al-Sabbagh, a senior Syrian diplomat, said on September 10 that he had voiced his nation's "deep concern" to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano about the possible risks of a military strike on the MNSR. Al-Sabbagh said Syria "strongly" endorsed the Russian request for an assessment by IAEA: "I expressed our deep concern regarding the possible risks of any military attack on facilities under safeguards agreement."[2]

The US Ambassador to the IAEA, Joseph Macmanus, told an IAEA Board meeting on September 9 that such "comprehensive risk analyses of hypothetical scenarios are beyond the IAEA's statutory authority. The IAEA has never before conducted this type of analysis, and it would exceed IAEA's mandate, and have far-reaching implications that exceed IAEA capabilities and authorities."[3]

Amano said on September 9 that the IAEA was considering the Russian request.[4,5] He said that 1 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is contained in the MNSR.[6] The HEU fuel is enriched to nearly 90% according to an IAEA document.[4]

Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the MNSR is a very small reactor but there could be "a serious local radiation hazard" if there was irradiated nuclear material in the reactor and it was dispersed by a military strike.[1]

Amano noted that additional radiological materials could be in storage at multiple Syrian medical and scientific facilities.[7] Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said Syria "should have substantial amounts" of atomic assets such as radioactive cobalt isotopes. Such holdings could be "of a greater concern, if they end up in wrong hands," Heinonen said. "Normally they are stored in protected vaults."[7]

2007 Israeli strike
On 6 September 2007, Israel bombed a desert site in Syria that US intelligence reports said was a partially completed 25MW(t) North Korean-designed gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactor, which would have been capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two weapons per year. Syria said the site was a conventional military facility.[12]

Echoing responses to Israel's strike on a research reactor in Iraq in 1981, then IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei said in response to the 2007 strike: "If a country has information that another country is developing a secret nuclear program, the IAEA should be contacted because we have the power to investigate the issue."[8]

The IAEA released its latest report on this matter in late August − though it adds little to previous reports.[9] The latest IAEA report states that:

  • In June 2008, the IAEA Director General informed the Board of Governors that the Agency had been provided with information alleging that an installation at the Dair Alzour site (a.k.a. Al-Kibar), destroyed by Israel in September 2007, had been a nuclear reactor that was not yet operational and into which no nuclear material had been introduced. Information subsequently provided to the Agency included further allegations that the reactor was a gas cooled graphite moderated reactor, that it was not configured to produce electricity, that it had been built with the assistance of North Korea and that there were three other locations in Syria that were functionally related to the Dair Alzour site.
  • By the end of October 2007, large scale clearing and levelling operations had taken place at the site which had removed or obscured the remains of the destroyed building. Syria maintained that the destroyed building was a non-nuclear military installation and that Syria had had no nuclear related cooperation with the DPRK.
  • In June 2008, the Agency visited the Dair Alzour site and requested supporting documentation concerning the past and current use of the buildings at the Dair Alzour site and at three other locations allegedly functionally related to that site. Since that visit, Syria has not engaged substantively with the Agency on the nature of the Dair Alzour site or the three other locations.
  • In his May 2011 report to the Board of Governors, the Director General provided the Agency's assessment that, based on all the information available to the Agency and its technical evaluation of that information, it was very likely that the building destroyed at the Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the Agency. Concerning the three other locations, the Agency was unable to provide an assessment concerning their nature or operational status.
  • In June 2011, the Board of Governors voted in favour of a resolution which found that Syria's undeclared construction of a nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour and failure to provide design information for the facility constituted non-compliance by Syria with its obligations under its NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. The Board also decided to report Syria's non-compliance to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly. (China and Russia voted against the IAEA Board of Governors resolution and subsequently opposed any action against Syria at the Security Council.)
  • During a meeting with the IAEA in Damascus in October 2011, a proposal regarding possible future actions that focused solely on the Dair Alzour site was discussed, but the IAEA concluded that the proposal was not acceptable given the conditions placed by Syria on IAEA verification activities at the site and the omission of the three other locations from the scope of the proposal. The Agency subsequently proposed to Syria to hold further discussions. In a February 2012 letter to the IAEA, Syria indicated that it would provide a detailed response at a later time, noting the difficult prevailing security situation in the country.
  • Civil conflict has further complicated the situation. In June 2013, the IAEA informed Syria that the 2013 physical inventory verification at the MNSR would be postponed until the security conditions had sufficiently improved. The IAEA continues to monitor satellite imagery of the MNSR, the yellowcake storage area at the Homs Phosphoric Acid Pilot Plant and other locations of safeguards relevance.

Furthermore, IAEA inspectors discovered undeclared anthropogenic uranium particles at the MNSR in 2008 and 2009. The investigation is ongoing, but the most recent information provided by Syria indicates that the particles originated from previously unreported activities involving the conversion of yellowcake to uranyl nitrate in 2004.[10]

Historical pursuit of nuclear facilities
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Syria has consistently pursued more advanced nuclear technologies.[10] The military has been a stakeholder in Syria's nuclear program since the 1970s, and Damascus has both openly and covertly sought the assistance of numerous parties, including the IAEA, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea to develop its nuclear program.

The NTI notes that Syria is a very long way short of a nuclear weapons capability: it has a weak industrial infrastructure; poor scientific capabilities; lacks the trained engineers and other personnel needed to run a major civilian or weapons-oriented program; the MNSR yields only tiny quantities of plutonium in its spent fuel, while its highly enriched uranium fuel is insufficient in quantity for a nuclear weapon; and Syria has not developed full nuclear fuel-cycle expertise and is not known to possess reprocessing technologies.

Previous efforts to procure nuclear technology include the following:[8,10,11]

  • In 1990, Argentina's state-controlled National Institute of Applied Research (INVAP) agreed to provide Syria with a 10 MW(t) research reactor and a hot cell lab for producing radioisotopes, but the Argentinean government vetoed the deal in 1995, allegedly after receiving strong pressure from both the US and Israel to block the deal.
  • India's offer to provide Syria with a 5 MW(t) reactor was shelved in 1991 under significant US pressure.
  • In 1991, US and Israeli officials claimed China was working with Syria on weaponisation projects.
  • In 1998, Russia and Syria signed a deal for the peaceful use of nuclear power, which included a desalination facility powered by a 25 MW light-water reactor. The project did not progress and is likely to have collapsed under US pressure.
  • In 2003, Syria signed a deal with Russia that included a nuclear power plant and a nuclear desalination facility, but the deal did not progress.
  • A 2004 CIA report found that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have provided Syria with nuclear information and equipment although the claim was rejected by then IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei.

Suspected fuel development site
A report released by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) on September 12 said that ancillary facilities built to support the alleged Syrian reactor could still contain uranium and other material of potential value to terrorist groups or black-market profiteers. The Marj as Sulţān facility in Damascus may have been involved in developing reactor fuel for the reactor. The reactor would have needed about 50 tonnes of natural uranium fuel to operate.[13]

"The uranium could be anywhere within government controlled areas today, if it even remains in Syria," the ISIS report states. "Determining its fate must be a priority."

The report notes that any uranium fuel remaining in Syria is not weapons-grade and could not be used in nuclear bombs without further processing. While Syria's thousands of chemical weapons remain a higher priority, its nuclear assets "deserve significant attention". Syria also has radioactive sources and wastes which could be at risk of seizure, the ISIS report states, and these could cause greater radioactive harm than natural uranium.

Syria is not believed to have an active, secret nuclear program at this time, the ISIS report states, but it is believed to be actively hiding assets associated with its past, undeclared nuclear reactor effort. Both the Marj as Sulţān fuel development site and the (now demolished) reactor site have fallen under control of government opponents at times during the civil war. Rebels reportedly invited the IAEA to inspect the reactor site if they satisfied some unspecified conditions. The IAEA did not take up this offer, and it would have had no authority to do so, since its safeguards agreement is with the Syrian government. The UN would need to provide the IAEA with authority (and adequate protection) to inspect the site independent of the Syrian government, the ISIS report states.