The Saga of Syria's Nuclear Plant
There is a goodly amount of spin surrounding American allegations that North Korea assisted Syria in the construction of a nuclear reactor.
If the report is true and the pictures are not some Hail Mary neocon forgeries, Syria's motives and judgment are certainly open to question.
But in the context of Syria's stated nuclear ambitions, it might have seemed a good idea at the time.
According to an organization called Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), run by Ted Turner and Sam Nunn, Syria first expressed its interest in developing a civilian nuclear capability ten years ago.
I'll quote it at length because I don't think you'll be reading about Syria's civilian nuclear program in your hometown paper anytime soon.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Syria began exploring its potential for indigenous nuclear resources. Upon completion of several uranium exploration projects, Syria began experiments to extract uranium from its vast phosphoric rock reserves. In 1986, the IAEA and AECS constructed a micro-plant at the General Phosphate Company Plant in Homs to study the process of uranium extraction from phosphoric acid. The plant would be the forerunner to a commercial plant if Syria obtained a nuclear power reactor and needed fresh fuel regularly. In 1996, Syria began developing a plant to recover uranium from tri-superphosphates using a similar technology. That facility came online in 2001.
In 1991, China started constructing Syria's first research reactor, a 30KW miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR) to be located at the Der Al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center near Damascus. China provided Syria with approximately 980 grams of 89% enriched U235 to operate the reactor. That facility went critical in 1996 and become fully operational in 1998. The MNSR gives Syria the capability to produce neutrons for nuclear analysis, isotopes for industrial applications, and radioisotopes for training purposes, but is unsuitable for weapons production.
In more recent years, Syria has continued to develop its nuclear research facilities and other facilities to help manage its nuclear material. The government has also entered into new cooperation agreements with several countries, most notably Russia. In 1998, the intergovernmental Russia-Syrian Commission on Trade and Scientific and Technical Cooperation signed of a memorandum of cooperation between Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy and the AECS. Part of this accord was an agreement to construct a nuclear research center that would include a 25MW research reactor.
Syria's nuclear program remains in the fundamental stages of development, with virtually no fuel cycle facilities in operation. ...
In 2003, Russian and Syrian officials continued their negotiations for the construction of a nuclear facility that would include a nuclear power plant and a seawater atomic desalination plant. Open sources reported that the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy confirmed that discussions over supplying Syria with a power plant and a desalination plant were taking place. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman refuted the Minatom statement and denied that any discussion had taken place. Consequently, Syria's quest for obtaining a nuclear power plant remains an unanswered question.
In early 2007 Syria announced possible plans to pursue nuclear energy in order to meet increased energy consumption in the country. Syrian officials have stated that nuclear energy could provide a feasible energy alternative in light of concerns of oil depletion and a ten percent annual increase in electricity use.
So... Syria has uranium resources and has been openly exploring its nuclear power options since 1998.
Furthermore, the legal basis under the NPT for criticizing Syria, let alone bombing the beejeezus out of a suspected facility as Israel did, is less than rock solid.
Syria is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore has accepted the obligation to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear material.
Beyond the general principle of “safeguarding”, as the process is known, there are devilish details that are not publicly known and form the content of a series of bilateral agreements between the IAEA and member states.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists believes that Syria's agreement with the IAEA probably contained a new obligation to notify the IAEA if it was constructing a reactor, and not just letting the IAEA know when nuclear material entered the equation, as was previously required.
[The IAEA] board called for revisions to existing subsidiary arrangements to be incorporated into both new and old safeguard agreements. These revisions would oblige states with comprehensive safeguard agreements in force to provide preliminary information to the IAEA as soon as a decision has been made to construct, authorize to construct, or modify a facility. Finally, in an interesting coincidence, the February 1992 board session also approved the text of the comprehensive safeguards agreement for Syria, which would enter into force on May 18, 1992.
The Bulletin concludes:
Syria, whose safeguards agreement entered into force after the board decision to revise the subsidiary arrangements, would therefore need to inform the IAEA as soon as it decided to construct a facility, if such construction was underway.
As presented by the Bulletin, the argument against Syria isn't 100% smoking-gun.
From the timing of the IAEA's public announcement that they interpreted safeguard agreements as including obligations to notify to the IAEA as soon as construction of a reactor was authorized and the simultaneous approval of the Syrian agreement, the Bulletin is inferring that Syria was subject to the notification requirement.
In fact, it could go the other way and Syria might claim that the enhanced requirements post-dated finalization of Syria's text (which clearly had been negotiated and submitted for approval prior to the announcement) so they aren't covered by it.
In either case, it would be nice to see this point explicitly confirmed.
One clear indication of Syria's intentions is its refusal so far to sign the “Additional Protocol”, an expansion of IAEA mandate enthusiastically promoted by the United States. The desired terms are enshrined in a “Model Additional Protocol” released by the IAEA.
The intent of the Model Additional Protocol is to “turn accountants into detectives” in the words of Theodore Hirsch, in the wake of the IAEA's failure to detect a massive undeclared nuclear program by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
If an NPT signatory concludes an Additional Protocol, it is required to make a full declaration of all nuclear-related activities, including non-nuclear processes such as fabricating centrifuges, and give the IAEA the right to make unannounced site inspections based on third-party information to verify the completeness and correctness of the declaration. For good measure, if IAEA inspection reveals a demonstrated material mis-statement in the declaration, the case gets referred to the United Nations Security Council.
Non-proliferation wonks routinely express dismay and disappointment that more states haven't signed onto the sovereignty-busting Additional Protocols, but the amazing thing is that anybody has.
Especially when one considers what use the United States might make of them.
The United States was the driving force behind the drafting of the Model Additional Protocol and took the important step of signing and ratifying a version that was, inevitably less than model—it reserved the right to claim a national security exemption for secret activities and facilities.
The Bush administration enthusiastically touted the value of the Additional Protocols and achieved a measure of success with Japan and with Europe. NATO included a demand that acceptance of the protocols be made mandatory and a prerequisite for the international nuclear trade in its November 2004 resolution on nuclear proliferation—something that looks like an attempt to unilaterally abrogate the existing safeguarding agreements the IAEA had negotiated under the NPT.
The Bush administration, guided by Robert Joseph and John Bolton, was eager to gain control of the IAEA. John Bolton's quixotic, high profile vendetta against Elbaradei should be understand less as pique at the DG's correctness on Iraq and coddling of Iran than as a doomed attempt to install a pro-American director general (the only candidate the US was able to float was Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer) and divert the IAEA mission into a more pro-American direction.
If the United States gained control over the IAEA, it would undoubtedly have expanded and asserted its prerogatives for heightened, adversarial scrutiny of Iran—and any other potentially nuclear state on America's blacklist—by establishing behavior in conformance with the Additional Protocol as the baseline for acceptable behavior even if NPT states didn't sign the protocol—essentially replacing the non-proliferation activities the IAEA was chartered to pursue with the new US counterproliferation doctrine.
Even after the United States' credibility and pretensions to leadership of the world anti-proliferation movement were devastated by the Iraq shambles and Elbaradei had sailed to a third term, the Bush administration has labored mightily to influence the IAEA process by virtue of its leadership of the Western block of key military powers and nuclear suppliers.
Jan Lodding of the Acronym Institute wrote :
...some states are updating their interpretations...making the legal argument that since comprehensive agreements with additional protocols are becoming established as the prevailing norm of the safeguards system, these broader agreements now constitute the safeguards legally required under Article III [of the NPT].
For “some states” read “United States”, in my opinion.
And I've toiled long enough in the vineyards of Boltonism to see this rather unlegal “legal argument” as a classic example of “I can't get people to agree with me but since they didn't openly disagree with me I'll ignore the absence of a formal agreement and claim to represent a tacit consensus”.
In testimony in 2003 concerning Syrian activities, John Bolton took Syrian bad faith as a given and gave an idea what sort of treatment Damascus could expect if the IAEA toed the American line:
Without question, among rogue states, those most aggressively seeking to acquire or develop WMD and their means of delivery, and which are therefore threats to our national security, are Iran and North Korea, followed by Libya and Syria. It is also the case that these states are among those we identify as state sponsors of terrorism. We aim not just to prevent the spread of WMD, but also to roll back and ultimately eliminate such weapons from the arsenals of rogue states and ensure that the terrorist groups they sponsor do not acquire weapons of mass destruction.
As I informed Congress last fall, we are concerned about Syria's nuclear R&D program and continue to watch for any signs of nuclear weapons activity or foreign assistance that could facilitate a Syrian nuclear weapons capability. We are aware of Syrian efforts to acquire dual-use technologie, some, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Technical Cooperation program, that could be applied to a nuclear weapons program. In addition, Russia and Syria have approved a draft program on cooperation on civil nuclear power. Broader access to Russian expertise could provide opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons. The Syrians have a Chinese-supplied miniature research reactor under IAEA safeguards at Dayr Al Hajar.
Syria is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has a standard safeguards agreement with the IAEA but, like Iran, has not yet signed or, to our knowledge, even begun negotiations on the IAEA Additional Protocol. The Additional Protocol is an important tool that, if fully implemented, could strengthen the IAEA's investigative powers to verify compliance with NPT safeguards obligations and provides the IAEA with the ability to act quickly on any indicators of undeclared nuclear materials, facilities and activities. We believe the Additional Protocol should be a new minimal standard for countries to demonstrate their nonproliferation bona fides.
In Syria we see expanding WMD capabilities and continued state sponsorship of terrorism. As the President has said, we cannot allow the world's most dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes, and will work tirelessly to ensure this is not the case for Syria.
Now we have some context for some scenario-spinning.
Syria has openly sought a nuclear capability. It claims its objective is civilian power generation only. Syria has a much more plausible case than Iran, in my opinion, given Syria's shortage of oil, presence of uranium resources, and the unlikelihood of a small, militarily weak state next door to Israel imagining it could successfully prosecute a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
During the Reign of Big John as America's WMD and counterproliferation czar--roughly 2001 through 2006--US hostility to any Syrian nuclear capability is absolute.
Syria tried to do nuclear power station business with the Russians but has been unsuccessful, undoubtedly due to US pressure.
The NPT process—by which signatory states allow their nuclear activities to be monitored in return to access to nuclear technology—isn't working.
And it's not going to get better.
Elbaradei, committed to the independence of the IAEA, is not going to be around forever. If a pro-US director general was installed, the emphasis is going to shift from traditional non-proliferation to counter-proliferation, demands to conclude the invasive Additional Protocol as a precondition for any further dialogue, and perpetual institutionalized hostility fueled by US and Israeli tips, innuendo, and pressure. And, undoubtedly, no nuclear power plants for Syria.
If Syria wants to obtain a nuclear capability while the environment at the IAEA is still relatively favorable, then maybe it would be seen as a good idea to get some nuclear technology from the only people willing to sell it—the North Koreans with their crappy, obsolete Magnox reactors—and get a facility up and legitimized while Elbaradei's still in office.
So, by my scenario, Syria builds a reactor in 2004-07, relying on a personal interpretation of its obligations under the Safeguard Agreement and recalling that it has opted out of the restrictive Additional Protocols in order to justify not notifying the IAEA that it is constructing a nuclear reactor.
Syria executes the project on the sly so that the United States doesn't unilaterally invoke the Proliferation Security Initiative , a Joseph and Bolton-designed, US-led “coalition of the willing” that, by 2005-2006, had tasked itself, in the absence of enabling UN Security Council resolutions and outside the IAEA, with interdicting North Korea's transport of proliferation related equipment and materials.
Then, at the politically opportune time, Syria planned to announce it has a civilian nuclear reactor at the ready and wants to run some power lines to it and fuel it, and negotiates a deal with Elbaradei—bygones be bygones!-- to get the new facility blessed by the IAEA and incorporated into the safeguards regime.
Syria would have a new bargaining chip: a legal, emergent nuclear program that Israel has to factor into its considerations as to how far it can push Syria, Lebanon, and Hizbollah. And a new source of prestige and leverage for Syria in the Arab world.
This scenario, as it so happens, dovetails with my theory as to why Israel had to bomb the Syrian facility in September of last year.
Yes, it was because the facility might be ready to come on line.
But not for the reason you think.
There was no nuclear weapons threat.
Even if the facility started up in 2007—and nobody seems to be saying yet they had the fuel to start it up—Syria would have at least a year away from getting barely enough plutonium for a bomb, even if they had the facilities for extracting it from the fuel rods (which they don't) or the equipment and technology to construct a gadget (which they also don't).
As for the spectre of radioactive debris if the IDF bombed the reactor after it was fueled, well, call me callous, but the Middle East is awash in depleted uranium courtesy of Gulf Wars I and II and I don't see a huge regional health hazard from the possible release of 45 tons of unenriched uranium. Besides, Global Security reported that the U.S. has all kinds of plans for bombing Yongbyon back in 1994 with minimized radioactive release and I think the Israelis can pancake a structure with the best of them.
No, I think the reason the Israelis had to destroy the reactor last year was because they didn't want the diplomatic headache of having to launch an attack after Syria went public and was involved in negotiations with Elbaradei and the IAEA.
Israel's current geopolitical stance—and its claim on undiluted, unquestioning US support—relies on its assertion that Israel faces existential nuclear threats from Iran and other nations that can only be pre-empted and not negotiated with.
Last October I wrote :
From what's been leaked we can conclude that the Israelis saw something in Syria that they declared, either through sophisticated analysis, an excess of caution and paranoia, or cynical calculation, to be something nuclear that they wanted to blow up and the White House without a great deal of enthusiasm, let them do it.
My take on the situation:
Israel's concerns—both Likud and Labor--are focused on regional security doctrine, the relationship with Washington, and the potential confrontation with Iran.
What Syria actually did or did not have in the desert was of secondary importance, and certainly was not an imminent threat.
Israel wanted to use its Syria findings to paint for Washington a picture of the Middle East with the proliferation genie out of the bottle and Israel threatened by Islamic nuclear reactors operated by duplicitous regimes in Iran and Syria and percolating with potential for covert weapons programs.
These programs would all be legal or quasi-legal, with their owners gaming the IAEA and hiding behind the NPT, stroking the Europeans, relying on Chinese and Russian diplomatic cover in the Security Council, acquiring forbidden nuclear technology from venal, immoral, and indifferent Russians, North Koreans, and Pakistanis, and creeping inexorably toward weaponization.
For the purposes of this policy, the destruction of an undeclared, menacing nuclear structure pays many more dividends than allowing its existence to be declared, explained, and defended, repeating the excruciating boxstep of intimidation, sanctions, threats of attack and IAEA negotiation that is currently going on with Iran.
In summary, Israel's attack on the reactor might be seen as a pre-emptive strike—against the IAEA.
One thing that observers might note is that North Korea is getting a pretty free ride from the United States, considering it proliferated reactor technology into the Middle East.
Specifically, I am not seeing the signs of orgasmic release I would expect from John Bolton if this revelation was a bombshell that promised to destroy the Six Party Agreement and shatter the reputations of his detested adversaries inside the State Department.
So I'm thinking that Kim Jung Il revealed information about the plant as a confidence-building measure to advance North Korea’s agenda with US negotiators, while hanging the Syrians out to dry. Maybe those incriminating pictures inside the purported Syrian reactor were snaps by a North Korean technician that Dear Leader passed on to Chris Hill.
In fact, there seem to be a lot of photographs, not just a few furtive snapshots taken by a daring spy, according to the transcript of the April 24 Syria briefing available on Arms Control Wonk :
And just to hit a point I said earlier, you see the kind of crawlspace back there? If you have access to the wealth of photographs that we had, you can work from the crawlspace to the wall to the windows to the ventilation duct to the duct coming out the window, and now you’re looking at the overhead photography of that window in the right place with the duct coming out of it.[emph. added]
As for the Syrians, they might have thought they were acquiring a risky but potentially valuable foreign policy asset. But now it just looks like a liability.
Instead of the prestige and leverage that membership in the nuclear club bestows, Syria spent several million dollars on a pile of rubble and got the short end of the stick as the United States demands that Syria “come clean”, and renews its efforts to ostracize Syria from the Arab states and Europe.
Now Syria has to wrestle with a fresh PR debacle as it battles the Hariri investigation and tries to stall the selection of the new Lebanese president until 2009 and a new US administration.
Rely on North Korean assistance and discretion to build a clandestine nuclear reactor within range of the Israeli air force?
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time...