Al Kibar

Last week brought Al Kibar speculation from another source, a report from ISIS Nuclear. As Peter Jenkins and Robert Kelley question the presence of nuclear fuel, ISIS worries about 50,000 kilograms of natural uranium and its proliferation implications.

Al Kibar 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. It was bombed by Israel in late 2007 because a building there was believed to house a reactor under construction for plutonium production. The Syrian government razed the site and built a new building, which houses SCUD missiles. There has been significant fighting in the vicinity for more than a year, and the site is now under the control of ISIL.

If such a stock of natural uranium is in Syria, it would have little use in weapons, but, as ISIS points out, it could be of interest for trafficking to states or others trying to acquire uranium. It would require a great deal of enrichment for a nuclear weapon, and it’s not radioactive enough to be useful in a dirty bomb.

The ISIS report says it gets that 50,000 kilogram number from the background briefing given by US intelligence officials in April 2008 on the Israeli strike, but this is an inference, not explicitly stated in the briefing. The whole briefing is worth reading as a status report after the bombing. In it, intelligence officials say, in intelligence-speak, that they have very high confidence that the building bombed contained a reactor. They are less confident about whether North Korea was involved, and they don’t say much about reprocessing facilities that would be needed to separate the plutonium from the reactor fuel.

The way ISIS infers the 50,000 kilograms of uranium is fleshed out in another report, with several possible scenarios. They also speculate that the uranium might have been buried at Al Kibar after the Israeli strike or that it may be at another site. This amount of uranium metal would fill a cubic volume a little less than a meter and a half on a side. Considering that it would be in some other form, like the cylindrical ingots mentioned in the report, that volume would be larger, but still small enough to bury.

The argument is one hypothetical on top of another:

  • If the site held a reactor of exactly the same design as the North Korean reactor
  • If uranium had been obtained and, perhaps, processed to fuel the reactor
  • If the reactor had not yet been fueled or the fuel not destroyed in the Israeli strike
  • If the uranium or fuel had been hidden

What does the new report say? It mentions the “natural uranium, alleged to exceed 50,000 kilograms,” without saying that it is mainly earlier ISIS reports that do the alleging. It adds another “If”: If that alleged uranium were enriched to weapons grade, it could be made into “at least 3-5 nuclear weapons.”

The current Google Earth photo (July 10, 2013) shows damage to a corner of the roof and one side. The ISIS Nuclear report adds a more recent photo that seems to show further work on the building. In that more recent photo, some features inside the building can barely be made out. ISIS interprets them as a cubic object and soil that is being excavated.

In the earlier report, ISIS identifies a site at Marj as Sulţān as a possible pilot plant for fuel fabrication and therefore a possible storage location for the alleged 50,000 kilograms of uranium. In this report, they no longer believe that to be likely.

Additional information leads the authors to believe that a site had been chosen for a reprocessing plant but no work had started in 2007. They adduce evidence that Syria had ordered large quantities of barite, which can be used to fortify concrete structures against radiation. That would be the case for hospital or research facilities as well as a reprocessing plant. The use the Syrian government gave for the barite was acid filtration. Barite is also used in drilling mud for oil wells. This is very thin evidence for a reprocessing plant and justifies the 2008 intelligence assessment as being of low confidence if that was all the intelligence community had.

The new report provides very little additional information, all of it highly speculative.

Jenkins and Kelley argue that IAEA analyses of uranium from Al Kibar are doubtful; ISIS argues that there must be 50,000 kilograms of uranium somewhere. They could both be right, but the implications, that there was no uranium at Al Kibar and that there must have been, cannot both be right. Both rely on extremely thin evidence to make their points.

 

Top photo is of the Al Kibar site before the Israeli strike and after Syria cleaned it up, before another building was built. The ISIS report has later photos.

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