Safeguards | Syria

Syria’s illicit reactor

5 October 2011

In June, the International Atomic Energy referred Syria to the UN Security Council for noncompliance with its safeguards agreement regarding the Dair Alzour reactor. The action was only the latest move in a long investigation. By Chaim Braun

In a resolution adopted by the IAEA board of governors on 9 June 2011 [1], the IAEA referred Syria to the United Nations Security Council due to noncompliance with its safeguards agreement regarding the Dair Alzour nuclear reactor (also called the Al Kibar reactor).

In its latest Syria safeguards report [2], and in its UNSC referral document [1], the IAEA alleges that the facility destroyed by Israeli air force bombing on 6 September 2007 in eastern Syria was very likely a nuclear reactor similar to the gas-cooled, graphite-moderated 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon North Korea, and that that reactor should have been declared by Syria to the IAEA as part of its obligations under its Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Such a declaration should have been made as soon as the decision on the construction was reached, and additional information should have been provided as the reactor’s design and construction proceeded.

The IAEA further contends that Syria has been tardy and misleading in providing the Agency with access to sites, information, materials and persons required to allow the Agency to verify the nature of the destroyed Dair Alzour facility and its possible intended use. The IAEA was allowed to visit the Dair Alzour site only once on 23 June 2008. Syria did not allow IAEA access to three other sites identified by the Agency as functionally related to the destroyed reactor facility (see below), and provided incomplete or possibly misleading information to IAEA requests for further information.

With the referral of the Dair Alzour facility case to the UNSC the centre of activity regarding the Syrian reactor has shifted from Vienna to New York. However, no immediate action is expected given that Russia and China will likely veto any UNSC resolution that might strongly condemn Syria. Russia and China voted against the resolution in the IAEA board of governors meeting on 9 June 2011, where decisions are made, if required, by a simple majority of votes.

The IAEA secretariat chose not to request a special inspection of the Syrian site before referral to the UNSC for two reasons:

  • If the results of the inspections were to prove meagre, their lack of substance would deflate the value of special inspection as future nonproliferation tool
  • If, on the other hand, incriminating information were to be revealed, its discovery might cause political difficulties within Syria, in Syria’s relations with the NPT regime, and in the nascent peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.

The Agency thus chose to transfer the Syrian case directly to the UNSC based on the convincing but incomplete information so far obtained. It is interesting to note that among the Arab state members of the IAEA board of governors the UAE voted for the referral resolution and Jordan and Tunisia abstained. No Arab state voted against the referral resolution.


According to U.S. sources which publicly released information on the Al Kibar facility on 24 April 2008, nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea might have started as early as 1997, during the reign of Hafez al Assad, the father of the current president, eventually leading to the construction of the Al Kibar nuclear facility starting in about 2001.

The North Korean motivations for this joint project might have been mostly financial. They also possibly reflect the desire to establish an alternate plutonium supply source to replace the 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon, were it to be shut down as a part of a possible deal with the US.

Syria’s motivations were likely the desire to build up its nuclear infrastructure, given that other opportunities for nuclear facility construction in Syria were stopped in the past. Lack of financial resources resulted in cancellation of two prospective programmes. The French corporation Sofratome conducted feasibility studies for construction of a nuclear plant, stopped in 1983. Russia promised the construction of a research reactor and associated nuclear research centre; this project was finally terminated 1991. In addition, pressure from the USA on nonproliferation grounds has halted two other nuclear project initiatives: a 5 MWt research reactor from India (cancelled in 1991), and a 10MWt research reactor, with 20% enriched fuel, radiological protection centre and hot cell laboratory for medical isotope production from Argentina (cancelled by Argentina in 1995).

Syria might also have wanted to counter Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons capabilities, though its programme would have required several more decades of development (in areas such as fuel reprocessing, weapons design and delivery methods) before it could pose a credible threat to Israel.

By the time of the Israeli bombing, the Al Kibar facility was nearing completion, and the IAEA’s eventual assessment of the facility itself, of the nearby support infrastructure and of the three other functionally-related sites indicated with a high degree of confidence that Syria was clandestinely constructing a plutonium production reactor similar to the Yongbyon reactor with North Korean help.

The evidence

IAEA’s information regarding the Dair Alzour facility was obtained from intelligence reports provided by at least two countries (the USA, Israel and possibly others), by photographs obtained from these sources as well as commercial satellite corporations, by French commercial radar satellite data which corroborated other photographic data, and by inspection of purchasing records of dual-use items such as graphite (used for neutron moderation) and barium sulphate or Barite (used to produce ‘heavy concrete’ for the reactor’s biological shield).

The IAEA concluded from analysis of the information it reviewed that the Dair Alzour facility had a central section, which included a containment vessel, and cover with guide tubes for fuel element insertion and withdrawal, and for control rods. The dimensions of the reactor cavity were similar to those of the 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon. The reactor was to be fuelled with natural uranium and moderated with graphite. Syria has natural uranium resources obtained from phosphate mining and that it separates out at another facility discussed later. Based on the dimensions of the reactor and from the capacity of its water cooling system, the reactor’s capacity was judged to be 25 MW thermal (roughly equivalent to the 5 MWe reactor in Yongbyon). In its assumed nuclear characteristics, the Dair Alzour reactor, like the Yongbyon reactor, was similar to the Calder Hall gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactor technology built in the UK in the 1950s and widely described in the technical literature since. Next to the reactor cavity the Dair Alzour facility included two large shielded vaults for heat exchangers and a spent fuel storage pool. All these indicate a nuclear reactor facility.

The Dair Alzour site infrastructure included a river pump house (RPH) located on the Euphrates river nearby with a large pipe connecting it to the site pump house (SPH) next to the reactor facility (see Figure 1). A discharge water pipe led from the reactor facility back to the Euphrates downstream from the river pumping house. A pipe system connecting the Dair Alzour facility to a water treatment facility five kilometers away could have been used for alternate supply of treated water as well as a conduit for electric cables for site power.

No turbogenerator equipment or facility were identified at the Dair Alzour site, indicating that the purpose of the nuclear reactor was not electricity generation but rather plutonium production, with the heat generated in the process ultimately discharged into the waters of the Euphrates. US sources, in their April 2008 briefing, indicated an assumption that the plutonium produced in the fuel elements of the Al Kibar reactor once operational would have been processed in Syria rather than shipped abroad, although Syria is not known at this time to possess spent fuel reprocessing capacity. This issue is presently moot.

Following the bombing of the site in September 2007, workers demolished the above-ground structure over the underground reactor cavity, poured sand from a nearby hill into the cavity (see Figure 2), possibly clandestinely removed equipment from the site and constructed a large metallic structure over the demolished facility. In addition, they re-configured the water supply system to make it look like a single connection between the water treatment facility and the site and river pumping houses that bypassed the reactor facility. Syria also claimed that the entire facility was a missile-related military site rather than a nuclear production reactor.

The IAEA found traces of anthropogenic (industrially-treated) natural uranium in its site inspection of June 2008. Syria claimed that these uranium traces came from uranium included in the Israeli air force bombs dropped on the site, a claim investigated and refuted by the IAEA. No further plausible explanation for the sources of uranium identified at the alleged missile site was provided.

In a picture unearthed by U.S. sources, the North Korean uranium fuel fabrication manager from Yongbyon, Chon Chibu, (identified separately by both U.S. academic and intelligence sources) was shown together with Ibrahim Othman, the head the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS), at a Syrian location. Also, Syrian purchases of Barite, allegedly used for shielding facilities unrelated to Al Kibar, were terminated following the bombing of the site in September 2007. The accumulation of this evidence, and other direct and indirect evidence, led the IAEA to its conclusion that the Dair Alzour facility was very likely an undeclared plutonium production reactor.

Three more facilities

Subsequently the IAEA has identified three other facilities in Syria as functionally related to the Dair Alzour facility. These three sites were not declared to the IAEA and Syria refused requests for their inspection. Partial information in this regard was obtained in November 2010 by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and the US Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) [3].

Of particular relevance is the Syrian site of Marj as Sultan near Damascus, which is assumed to have contained a small fuel conversion plant used to convert natural uranium into uranium tetrafluoride (UF4). UF4 is an intermediate product in the reduction of uranium to the metallic form used for the fabrication of gas-graphite reactor fuel elements as required for the putative Dair Alzour reactor. The two other sites identified are located in Masayef and near the town of Iskandariyah. The Masayef site is a large military storage facility that might include items related to Dair Alzour. The role of the Iskandariyah site was not identified.

An additional site near the city of Homs is used for the purification of phosphoric acid. Uranium oxide (U3O8 or yellowcake) is produced as a side product in the acid purification process. IAEA inspectors identified several hundred kilograms of U3O8 during a site visit to Homs in July 2004. Syria possesses significant uranium-bearing phosphate resources and mines phosphates at several sites, including Charkia and Knifes. Uranium oxide is extracted from the mined phosphates at the Homs phosphoric acid recovery plant.

All the above information indicates a nascent Syrian clandestine plutonium production programme that was stopped in September 2007. Only time will tell whether this programme was truly terminated, or whether it is being re-configured to re-emerge in another technical direction at some point in the future, or whether such activities were already proceeding in 2007 in parallel with the reactor project.


This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

Author Info:

Chaim Braun, Centre for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA.



[1] Implementation of the NPT safeguards agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic, Resolution adopted by the Board of Governors on 9 June 2011 (GOV/2011/41)

[2] Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic Report by the Director General (GOV/2011/30), 24 May 2011


Fig 2 - syria Fig 2 - syria
Syria's reactor - Fig 1 Syria's reactor - Fig 1

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