Saturday, February 21, 2009

Syria's nuclear reactor: it's almost official

Al_KibarAfter the radio silence on the Israeli attack on a Syrian facility of unknown purpose (but suspected nuclear nonetheless) in 2007 have recently come the photos, analysis and video CIA presentation. Assuming there is no fabrication, the presentation makes a very strong case for suspecting the Al Kibar facility to have been a Yongbyon-style graphite-moderated gas-cooled nuclear reactor at an advanced level of construction. Such reactors of this size have only one purpose: the production of nuclear weapons-grade Plutonium 239. This type of reactor is the simplest of its kind, running on natural uranium (or natural uranium oxide) and not enriched uranium (as typically used in light water reactors for civilian energy production).

There remain nonetheless multiple questions. The Al Kibar facility shows no upstream or downstream facilities. Upstream a nuclear fuel processing plant would be needed to produce the natural uranium (as metal or oxide) from ore, at sufficiently high purity ('atomic grade') and in the right physical form.

Downstream, a spent-fuel processing plant, most likely deploying the PUREX process for the separation of nuclear fission products, Plutonium 239 and unconverted Uranium would be needed. A Plutonium refinery plant, capable of processing the separated and highly dangerous material from a chemically bound form to metallic Plutonium and subsequent machining of the metal into bomb cores would also be needed.

The absence of such facilities puts into question certain claims that the facility was within weeks of becoming operational.

Finally there remains the question of Uranium sourcing. As far as we know Syria has no internal sources (mines) of this highly restricted material. Iran does have its own mines but shipping ore or processed Uranium to Syria would be a high risk strategy. There is also some speculation about Syrian efforts to extract Uranium from phosphate rocks, a fairly common practice to produce fertiliser.

Further reading: ISIS report on Al Kibar (*.pdf)


At 9:02 PM, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Really interesting post.

The fact Syria never brought up the bombing at the UN, or any in front of any body, made it look like they had something to hide.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Yes, it all fits rather neatly into place...


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