As the war in Syria goes on, the attention of some has turned to a site, Al Kibar, that was bombed by Israel in 2007 and said to have been a potentially plutonium-producing reactor that the Syrians were building with the help of North Korea.
I looked at Al Kibar in some detail back then. My bottom line was that I found the information released by the CIA in April 2008 on the site and the Israeli strike less than totally convincing. There is evidence that what was in the building was a reactor, and there is evidence that the Syrians were talking to North Korea at the time. But I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case, and there were irregularities in the CIA report that might have indicated dissimulation or just carelessness.
The Syrian government rapidly bulldozed the site and built a new building where the alleged reactor building had been. In June 2008, after that work had been done, the IAEA visited the site and took samples. The IAEA reported finding uranium particles of anthropogenic origin. That was the word they used – anthropogenic. It could refer to the physical state of the uranium, perhaps a particular shape; or the chemical state, perhaps metal; or the isotopic state, perhaps enriched or depleted; or a combination of the three. Additionally, some of the reports said that Israel wanted to bomb before the reactor was fueled to prevent dispersing the uranium, or, worse, fission products. So then why would uranium show up? Discrepancies and open questions fascinate me, and I have kept my eyes open for further explanation.
The site is near a city that is more commonly referred to now as Dair Alzour, or phonetic variants; transcription from Arabic script to Roman is variable. Its location is 35° 42′ 28″ N, 39° 50′ 1″ E or 35.707778, 39.833611. There has been significant fighting in the vicinity for the past year and the site is now under the control of ISIL.
Peter Jenkins, a former British diplomat, published an account by a former IAEA inspector of how a uranium sample was taken and raises questions about the basis for declaring Syria out of compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The sampling procedure described is not acceptable for reasons Jenkins gives, and, if the account is true, not an appropriate basis for the finding. The IAEA did take environmental samples on their visit; the most probable place the uranium particles should have been located is in the soil, where debris from an explosion would have landed and bulldozing might not have completely removed it. “Traces” of graphite and stainless steel were also found.
Jenkins feels that the report from his anonymous source justifies re-opening the file on the Syrian site and that the evidence should be reviewed by a committee of experts.
Robert Kelley, a former scientist and intelligence analyst for the United States government and the IAEA, joins in calling for a new review. Kelley goes into much greater detail than does Jenkins’s source. It is possible that Kelley has additional sources for his information, but he doesn’t say.
Neither Jenkins nor Kelley references a set of photos, alleged to have been taken by a spy who accessed the building at Al Kibar that the Israelis destroyed. Those photos show a reactor being assembled. As I recall, they were part of the data the CIA released. They are mentioned in paragraph 9 of one of the IAEA reports that Jenkins cites.
Back to the IAEA Reports
Most of the information available publicly that is relevant to Jenkins’s and Kelley’s claims is in the IAEA reports on the Al Kibar site. Jenkins links the IAEA report that went to the Board of Governors as the basis for a finding of noncompliance, GOV/2011/30 of May 24, 2011.
That report lays out the basis for believing that the bombed building having housed a partly constructed nuclear reactor. A description of the building and water and electrical infrastructure and an assessment of these features account for four pages of the report, the sampling a half-page. In that half-page, the graphite and stainless steel are noted in paragraph 22 but found not determinative. Graphite could result from the bombing, and stainless steel is used in many ways.
The uranium samples are described in paragraph 21, which is short.
- The presence of a significant number of particles of anthropogenic natural uranium at the Dair Alzour site indicates a connection to nuclear related activities at the site and increases concerns about possible undeclared nuclear material at the site. The Agency has not been able to determine the origin of the particles. Notwithstanding the lack of response to the Agency’s requests for additional information concerning the origin of the particles, the Agency’s assessment of Syria’s explanation for the presence of the particles is that, based on their morphology and distribution, there is a low probability that they could have originated from the munitions used to destroy the building or by aerial dispersion as suggested by Syria.
Jenkins’s source says that the uranium particles were found in a clandestine tissue swipe in a men’s room. The fact that the IAEA and Syria consider their morphology and distribution as indicating a possible origin in munitions or aerial dispersion suggests that they were found in a number of samples outside the buildings. That implies soil samples, in the plural.
The samples “increase(s) concern” that nuclear material may have been at the site. That adds to the conclusion that a reactor was in the bombed building, but it is not the sole basis, as Jenkins and Kelley imply.
In the Wikileaks-released summary of a technical briefing on IAEA findings, referenced by Kelley, an additional 80 uranium particles were reported to have been found at the site. Jenkins’s source claims only three anthropogenic particles were found. Syria objected in such a way as to imply that these particles were found in soil samples. The samples are described as “man-made”, which is the same as “anthropogenic”, but no details are given.
Kelley quotes comments from the report on the isotopic makeup of conventional weapons that might have been used in the attack on Al Kibar. Depleted uranium is used in a variety of conventional munitions. (I’ll delete “conventional” from here on. None of this discussion has to do with nuclear weapons.) It is possible to infer from that comment that the uranium in the samples was of natural isotopic abundance, but that is not explicitly stated. In a North-Korean-type reactor the uranium fuel would be metallic, like the uranium in the weapons discussed. Kelley further suggests that the Israeli weapons could have been seeded with uranium particles to leave condemnatory evidence at the site. Syria claimed that the uranium came from the weapons.
Kelley calls for a reanalysis of the particles, suggesting that assumptions made by IAEA managers would have influenced the analysis. His argument is confused; it appears that he wants a reanalysis of the evidence rather than an isotopic analysis of the particles.
Isotopic analysis is done by mass spectrometry. Such an analysis would not be influenced by anyone’s assumptions; the machine separates the isotopes according to mass and gives their proportions. An analysis that failed to consider all uranium isotopes would be blatantly biased. If such a thing were done, it would be evidence of incompetence or fraud.
Kelley argues that the uranium in Israeli earth-penetrating weapons might have had a natural isotopic composition. The US uses depleted uranium because it has a large supply from its enrichment plants after the fissionable U-235 is removed for use in reactors or weapons. He also argues that the morphology of the particles suggests that they came from earth-penetrating weapons. Kelley himself is displaying a number of assumptions, or information from an unidentified source.
- The particles are of uranium metal.
- They are of natural isotopic abundance.
- They are of a particular morphology.
- Israel used ground-penetrating weapons in the attack.
- Those weapons use natural, rather than depleted, uranium.
Like Jenkins, Kelley implies that the uranium particles are the largest part of the IAEA’s case that the site contained a reactor.
The IAEA does not make all its evidence public because of confidentiality agreements. We don’t know the whole story. But a short summary:
- The IAEA’s case that the Al Kibar object destroyed by an Israeli attack is primarily supported by photographic and site analysis, with support from the samples taken after the Syrian government cleaned up the site.
- There are a number of samples, in which 80 or more uranium particles were found. These samples seem to be soil samples.
- Kelley should make clear where his information on the particles comes from.
- Clarification on the type of uranium used in Israeli conventional weapons would be desirable.
The story from Jenkins’s source conflicts in major ways with the IAEA reports. It isn’t supported as strongly as the IAEA reports are. Don’t be surprised if the IAEA declines to open a new investigation.
Photo: The Al Kibar site before (left) the bombing and after (right) the bombing and the Syrian government’s cleanup.by