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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Al Kibar / Dair Alzour Reactor

In a May 24, 2011 report by the IAEA Director General, the IAEA concluded that "that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor and should have been declared by Syria".

In response to IAEA enquiries, Syria has maintained that the destroyed building was a non-nuclear, military missile-related facitliy, and that as a result, it was under no obligation to provide any any additional information under its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA about that site or three additional sites under scrutiny; a claim refuted by the IAEA as there is no limitation in comprehensive safeguards agreements on Agency access to information, activities or locations simply because they may be military related.

In addition, Syria asserted that the facility could not have been a nuclear facility as it lacked reliable and sufficient electricity supplies, availability of human resources as well as access to large quantities of treated water.

Syria also refuted allegations of nuclear related cooperation with the DPRK.

The IAEA thus assessed that:

  • features of the destroyed building are comparable to those of gas cooled graphite moderated reactors of the type and size alleged;
  • prior to the bombing, the configuration of the infrastructure at the site, including its connections for cooling and treated water, was able to support the operation of such a reactor and was not consistent with Syria’s claims regarding the purpose of the infrastructure; in addition, a number of other features of the site add to its suitability for the construction and operation of a nuclear reactor;
  • analysis of samples from the site indicates a connection to nuclear related activities; and
  • the features of the destroyed building and the site could not have served the purpose claimed by Syria.

On the morning of 6 September 2007 the Israeli Air Force executed "Operation Orchard" a mission to destroy what they and the United States believed was the al Kibar reactor. US intelligence denied giving the Israelis targeting information. The reactor was destroyed with the central reactor hall collapsing along with various other roofs and walls. After the bombing the North Koreans met with the Syrian nuclear officials. After the destruction of the building it became easier to view parts of the reactor such as the reactor vessel and heat exchanges, which had been damaged but remained partially intact, after the bombing. The Syrians started putting up tarps, metal structures and working during the evening to take away various pieces of nuclear equipment. They also blew holes into various rooms, possibly so they could salvage other equipment that was not completely destroyed. On 10 October 2007 the Syrians destroyed the structure that remained standing and removed all of the pieces of the building leaving simply an empty plot of land. The United States government argued that the Syrians did this so that no international agencies would be able to find evidence of their nuclear program.

On 24 April 2008 the Office of National Intelligence presented various members of Congress the "Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement." North Korean nuclear officials, as well as Syrian officials started meeting and working together on nuclear related projects as early as 1997, during Syrian President Hafez al Assad's regime. Among the officials to visit Syria were the senior North Koreans who worked at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The most prominent of them being Chon Chibu the head of the Yongbyon reactor-fuel plant who had taken part in the six-party talks to stop the North Korean nuclear program. It was known that he has met with the head of Syrian's Atomic Energy Commission, Ibrahim Othman, probably before 2001. The intelligence community had known the meetings had been taking place as early as the "very late '90s," but was only sure of the nature of the meetings in 2003, and they were unable to come up with any details on what was being discussed. Washington guesses that the North Korean's reason for helping provide nuclear expertise to Syria was to get money.

The US Government became aware in 2005 that both Pyongyang and Damascus were working on something in the Syria's eastern region known as Dayr az Zawr. It was not until the spring of 2007 that the intelligence bureaus realized that a nuclear reactor was being built near a town called al Kibar along the eastern bank of Euphrates River.

Hans Ruehle, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, reported in the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung on 19 March 2009 that Ali Reza Asghari, a retired general in Iran's Revolutionary Guards and a former deputy defense minister, "changed sides" in February 2007 and provided considerable information to the West on Iran's nuclear program. "The biggest surprise, however, was his assertion that Iran was financing a secret nuclear project of Syria and North Korea," Ruehle wrote. "No one in the American intelligence scene had heard anything of it. And the Israelis who were immediately informed also were completely unaware." But a US counterproliferation official denied that Iran funded the Syrian site. "There is strong reason to believe that only two countries were involved in building the Syrian covert nuclear reactor at Al Kibar - Syria and North Korea." Ruehle reported that US and Israeli intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria starting in 2002, and US satellites had imaged the construction as early as 2003. But they regarded the work as nothing unusual. Ruehle reported that Israel sent a 12-man commando unit in two helicopters to the site in August 2007 to take photographs and soil samples. The reactor was thought to have been started in 2001. In 1992, North Korean nuclear officials were attempting to find and were otherwise acquiring materials for the Syrian reactor and even went so far as looking for a component for a gas-cooled reactor. It was also known that a cargo transfer between Syria and North Korea in 2006 was almost certainly destined for the al Kibar facility. One of the last things to be finished before the al Kibar facility was completed were the pump house and a pipeline, completed in August of 2007. It was thought that there were North Korean officials at the reactor a few months before it was ready to start, before the arrival of the fissile materials, which had still not been delivered.

Washington believed that the al Kibar facility was a nuclear reactor, specifically a gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactor, modeled after the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. The al Kibar reactor used North Korean technology and was the only reactor, except for Yongbyon, of its style built since 1973. The reactor had a steel liner to help protect the reinforced concrete reactor vessel, within the vessel was a series of vertical tubes at imbedded into the concrete at the top of the reactor vessel. In the center of the building these vertical tubes were used for refueling of the reactor as well as the for the control rods, the layout of the reactor vessel bore a striking resemblance in layout, capacity and size to the reactor vessel of North Korea's plutonium reactor. The one major difference between the two reactors was that al Kibar had no reprocessing plant. Flanking the reactor were two rooms opposite of each other that served as the heat exchangers in sealed reinforced concrete rooms. The heat exchangers worked by cooling the CO2 coolant which was pumped through the reactor to cool the core, the heated CO2 would pass through water provided by the Euphrates River that was kept in a subterranean tank. The plant likely also contained a spent fuel pool.

There was some debate over whether or not the building that was thought by the Americans to be the al Kibar reactor was in fact being used for this purpose. Some claimed that it was an old military building, a weapons cache destined for Hezbollah, or even a building used by the The Arab Center for the Studies of Arid zones and Dry lands. The United States Government claimed that it had sattelite pictures of the reactor, as well as dozens of pictures taken on site of the building, the reactor vessel before the concrete was poured and other parts of the reactor while they were still being built. The Office of National Intelligence also pointed to the building's isolated location in the Syrian desert and the creation of an dirt wall, reportedly to hide building from people. These factors, thought Washington, showed that this building was secret and was not meant to be seen by people. The al Kibar reactor originally, resembled the Pyongyang's reactor in Yongbyon, but after the main hall was finished, a light roof, as well as thin walls, the building soon changed to a large non-descript rectangular building, which would make it look less like a nuclear facility. The United States pointed out the lack of visible ventilation, cooling, or electrical-supply apparatuses, which could make people deny that it was a nuclear power plant. Further evidence for the reactor theory was unearthed after the destruction of the building.

Assuming the building was a reactor, there was still a question as to what was the reactor was being used for. Washington believed that the reactor was for the production of plutonium to be used in nuclear weapons. The reactor was not built in such a way that it would be useful for the creation of electricity. The building appeared to have no switching facilities or power lines to transport electricity from the reactor to another area. The reactor was also not set up as a research reactor would be. The Intelligence community believed that the reactor was to be used to make plutonium for a Syrian nuclear device. "We were certain, okay, this was a reactor and that it was going to produce plutonium. We saw no other logical use for that plutonium based upon - no other use for the reactor other than creating plutonium. And then our judgment was that the Syrians would only have done this - with the great expense and perhaps political risk involved - for a weapons program, although we had not yet detected the detailed and constituent elements of such a weapons program." The American authorities did not have any positive evidence to support their claim that Syria was attempting to build a reactor for plutonium production as of April 2008.

On 28 April 2011, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano publicly stated that the site bombed by Israel in Syria in 2007 was in fact a secret nuclear reactor. Syria had consistently denied speculation that the target was in fact a nuclear reactor. Amano's statement followed a press conference on 7 March 2011, in which he had indicated that Syria had not been cooperative in resolving questions related to the site since the IAEA began investigations in June 2008.

Key infrastructure configurations  of the Al Kibar / Dair Alzour Reactor before bombing and after reconfiguration (not to scale).
Key infrastructure configurations of the Al Kibar / Dair Alzour Reactor before bombing and after reconfiguration (not to scale).

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