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Al-Kibar

Last Modified: Dec. 6, 2013
Other Name: Dair Alzour
Location: Dayr Az Zawr region, 140 km from Iraqi border, 10 km north of At Tibnah
Subordinate To: n/a
Size: 20-25MWt
Facility Status: Alleged reactor destroyed

On 6 September 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed a building near the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. The structure is alleged to have been a gas-cooled graphite-moderated nuclear reactor under construction, capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two weapons per year.[1] Syria has consistently denied these allegations. In the days and weeks after the raid, Israel maintained official silence; Syria quietly protested the violation of its airspace, but also largely refrained from comment.[2] An explanation for the September operation took shape chiefly through leaks from officials inside the U.S. and Israeli governments. In broad strokes, the narrative was that North Korea had helped Syria construct a reactor modeled on its 25MWt research reactor at Yongbyon. Israel, convinced the Syrian reactor was intended for plutonium production, consulted the United States and then attacked the facility before it could be completed.[3] The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) publicized satellite photographs of the site in October and offered cautious support for the idea that Al-Kibar had been a reactor.[4] Other nonproliferation experts, including Joseph Cirincione and IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei, were skeptical.[5] ISIS released further photographs showing that Syria had razed the ruined facility shortly after the bombing and erected a new building in its place.[6]

More information was revealed in 2008. U.S. intelligence officials provided a background briefing to Congress on the suspected nuclear facility in April, presenting ground-level photographs reportedly taken at Al-Kibar before its destruction.[7] The photographs show apparent reactor components and the construction of additional outer walls to conceal the shape of a building which resembled North Korea's Magnox design reactor at Yongbyon. [8] U.S. officials expressed high confidence in their assessment that the facility had been a nuclear reactor under construction. They also alleged that Syria and North Korea had cooperated for more than a decade in the nuclear field, and had medium confidence that North Korea was involved in the construction of the facility at Al-Kibar.[9] Finally, the U.S. officials assessed that the purpose of the reactor was to create fuel for a nuclear weapons program; this judgment was made with less confidence because although they found the reactor to be unsuitable for research or power generation, the officials did not have any evidence of a reprocessing facility to separate plutonium from the spent fuel.[10]

Syria disputed the allegations, pointing to U.S. claims about Iraqi weapons prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[11] But Syria relented to an IAEA request to visit the Al-Kibar site, allowing one inspection on 23 June 2008.[12] By the time IAEA inspectors arrived, the Syrians had bulldozed much of an adjacent hill over the reactor remains and constructed a new building on top.[13] Despite these concealment efforts, the IAEA released a report in November revealing that a significant number of chemically processed natural uranium particles had been found during the inspection, warranting continued investigation. [14] Agency requests to visit related sites were denied.

In February 2009, the IAEA issued a follow-up report on Al-Kibar, requesting more cooperation from Syria and revealing that additional examination of environmental samples had yielded further traces of uranium. According to the report, characteristics of the uranium particles found at the site made it unlikely the uranium came from Israeli munitions, as Syria had previously suggested.[15] Syria reiterated its claim that the destroyed structure had a conventional military function and therefore was not subject to its safeguards agreement, to which the IAEA responded that the safeguards agreement "places no limitation on Agency access to information, activities or locations simply because they may be military related." [16] Syria also informed the agency that reported procurement efforts of graphite, barium sulphate, as well as water pumping equipment observed at the Al-Kibar site were civilian and non-nuclear in nature.[17]

Throughout 2010 the IAEA repeatedly requested that Syria provide further documentation about the infrastructure and construction of the destroyed building, and that the country grant access to the Al-Kibar site, the storage location of any debris from the site, and three other locations "allegedly functionally related" to Al-Kibar. [18] According to the Institute for Science and International Security, these three locations were at Masyaf, Marj as-Sultan, and Iskandariyah. [19] However, Syrian officials have not provided any further information, and have not responded to any of the IAEA's letters since August 2009. [20] On 24 May 2011, the IAEA concluded that "the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor" and therefore should have been declared to the Agency.[21] This assessment was based on the dimensions of the building seen in ground photographs and satellite imagery, the layout of the site and its water pumping facilities, the presence of nuclear materials found in environmental samples, and the inconsistencies with Syria's stated function of the site.[22] Despite referring Syria to the United Nations Security Council, the IAEA has not made any further progress in clarifying the nature of the facility, and the passage of time and Syria's cover-up activities at the site make it increasingly difficult to do so.[23]

Sources:
[1] "CIA director says Syrian nuclear reactor was nearly operational," Reuters, 29, April 2008; "North Korea and Syria: Oh what a tangled web they weave," The Economist, 1 May 2008.
[2] Leonard S. Spector and Avner Cohen, "Israel's Airstrike on Syria's Reactor: Implications for the Nonproliferation Regime," Arms Control Today, July/August 2008, www.armscontrol.org; "Syria complains to UN about Israeli airstrike," CNN, 11 September 2007.
[3] Robin Wright and Joby Warrick, "Syrians Disassembling Ruins at Site Bombed by Israel, Officials Say," The Washington Post, 19 October 2007.
[4] David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Suspect Reactor Construction Site in Eastern Syria: The Site of the September 6 Israeli Raid?" ISIS, 23 October 2007.
[5] Seymour Hersh, "A Strike in the Dark," The New Yorker, 11 February 2008.
[6] David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Jacqueline Shire, "Syria Update: Suspect Reactor Site Dismantled," ISIS, 25 October 2007; "Syria Update II: Syria Buries Foundation of Suspect Reactor Site," ISIS, 26 September 2007; "New Construction at Syrian Site," ISIS, 14 January 2008.
[7] "Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement," Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 24 April 2008, available at the Council on Foreign Relations Website, www.cfr.org.
[8] "Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor," CBS News, 24 April 2008, www.cbsnews.com.
[9] "Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement," Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 24 April 2008.
[10] "Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement," Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 24 April 2008; Jeffrey Lewis, "Revisiting Bush's Decision on Al Kibar," Arms Control Wonk, 12 September 2011, www.armscontrolwonk.com.
[11] "Syria denies N Korea nuclear link," Al Jazeera, 25 April 2007.
[12] "UN nuclear team inspects Syrian site," Reuters, 24 June 2008;
[13] Gregory L. Schulte, "Uncovering Syria's covert reactor," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2010, p.2; David Albright and Paul Brannan, "The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications," Institute for Science and international Security, 12 May 2008, http://isis-online.org.
[14] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2008/60, 19 November 2008, www.iaea.org.
[15] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2008/60, 19 November 2008, www.iaea.org; IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2009/9, 19 February 2009, www.iaea.org.
[16] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2009/75, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[17] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," IAEA Board of Governors Report, 5 June 2009, www.iaea.org.
[18] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2010/11, 18 February 2010, IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/8, 25 February 2011, www.iaea.org.
[19] David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Satellite Image Shows Syrian Site Functionally Related to Al Kibar Reactor," ISIS, 1 December 2010, http://isis-online.org.
[20] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011, www.iaea.org.
[21] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011, www.iaea.org.
[22] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011, www.iaea.org.
[23] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Resolution Adopted by the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/41, 9 June 2011, www.iaea.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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