Analysis: Syria's alleged secret reactor site

Scorpion

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Analysis: Syria's alleged secret reactor site


Syria's alleged nuclear facility (Map data copyright 2014 Google, DigitalGlobe/ORION-ME/US Dept of State Georgrapher/IHS:1569488)
Key Points
  • Syria has reportedly established a nuclear facility in an underground facility on its border with Lebanon
  • There is no evidence in the available satellite imagery to corroborate the claims
Syria has continued its nuclear weapons programme at an underground facility located in mountains close to the Lebanese border, according to "secret information" cited by Spiegel Online on 9 January.

The German website suggested it had obtained documents that represented a consensus developed by multiple Western intelligence agencies regarding the construction of the underground facility 15 km west of the town of Al-Qasyr (34.513800 36.407900), which began in 2009 after an Israeli airstrike destroyed the reactor that Syria had tried to build secretly on the Euphrates River at Al-Kibar.

The site has previously been identified by IHS Jane's as a possible weapons storage complex that could be used by the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah, which controls the adjoining Lebanese territory. While the location would be easier for the Israeli Air Force to reach than Al-Kibar, a complex of underground tunnels and chambers would be harder to destroy.

Spiegel cited communications intercepts in which a high-ranking Hizbullah official who was in regular contact with the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission referred to an "atomic factory" known as 'Zamzam' as the "clearest proof" of the existence of the nuclear facility.

The magazine stated that approximately 8,000 fuel rods were stored at the facility, but then vaguely added that "a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site". Fuel rods would be used in a reactor, not a uranium enrichment facility.

The report suggested that photographs of the fuel rods had leaked out, saying their workmanship "hinted at North Korean involvement".

This suggests the facility houses a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor of the same type that was built at Al-Kibar, which the CIA assessed to be "similar in size and capacity" to North Korea's Yongbyon reactor. The CIA assessed that the Al-Kibar reactor was built with North Korean assistance and would have been used to turn naturally occurring uranium into plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Such reactors do not need large cooling towers, but they do need a water supply, so are typically built by rivers or the sea.

"A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well, which connects the facility with the Zaita Lake, 4 km away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but is essential for a nuclear facility," Spiegel noted.

The presence of this well is impossible to verify using the available satellite imagery and it would arguably make more sense for the Syrians to lay a pipeline to the lake than dig a well to extract water from the aquifer. At least one pipeline would have to be laid regardless, to dump the water that was heated by the reactor back into the lake.

No such pipelines, outlets or associated pumping stations can be seen in the available satellite imagery.

Indeed, if Syria has built an underground reactor at the site identified by Spiegel, it would represent a remarkable deception effort. Spiegel said that the work was "disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging".

There is no Google Earth satellite imagery of the site between November 2005 and August 2011, but work on the facility appears to have been completed by the latter date. None of the vehicles, equipment, spoil piles, concrete production facility, and power stations that would normally be present during the development of a large underground facility can be seen in the subsequent imagery. Security around the facility also appears to be minimal.

The assertion that Syria built an underground reactor to produce plutonium in two years should consequently be treated with scepticism. One possible explanation is that Spiegel was deliberately leaked vague and misleading information designed to draw attention to Syrian proliferation activities at a time when Washington appears to be reluctant to support concerted efforts to depose President Bashar al-Assad and is trying to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme.

Analysis: Syria's alleged secret reactor site - IHS Jane's 360



Great, Iran and now Syria. Oh God.
 

DeltaForce103

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North Korea had previously built a nuclear reactor for Syria, only to have it destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. If this bit of speculation turns out to be true, perhaps the shift in global attention to terrorist organizations in the region and a lack of US intervention has emboldened the Syrian government to pursue nuclear proliferation again.

It's becoming increasingly harder to track the development of nuclear technology in the Middle East, all these unsubstantiated rumors may cause a regional nuclear arms race, the consequences of which would be hard to even contemplate.
 
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