Phosphoric Acid Pilot Plant

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Last Updated: August 15, 2012
Other Name: Uranium Recovery Plant; Homs Plant; Micro-Pilot Uranium Recovery Plant
Location: Homs; a.k.a. Hims
Subordinate To: Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS)
Size: Micro-Pilot Plant and Pilot Plant
Facility Status: Operational, unknown how much material recovered

In 1986, the IAEA approved a technical cooperation project with Syria's AECS, offering to provide "a micro-pilot plant facility, spare parts, and chemicals to enable yellowcake uranium recovery" from phosphoric acid. [1] Syria intended the facility to be the first step to develop a domestic uranium supply that would eventually include an industrial scale uranium extraction facility as well as refining, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. [2] The IAEA technical cooperation project included staff training in the operation of the micro-pilot plant and the uranium recovery process. The AECS also requested assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to construct a uranium recovery pilot plant. Canada's Kilborn Inc. carried out a pre-feasibility study for this larger plant, but determined that industrialization of the process was not advisable from a financial perspective.[3]

Nonetheless, in 1996 Syria commenced another technical cooperation project with the IAEA to "upgrade the technical capabilities of Syria in removing uranium from Triple Super Phosphate (TSP)" produced at the Homs Fertilizer Plant. [4] Syria subsequently initiated a tri-partite contract with the IAEA and an unnamed supplier – likely Sweden – and the plant was commissioned in 1999. [5] Between 1997 and 2002, several Syrian experts reportedly spent time at Ranstad Mineral in Sweden, a facility that extracts uranium for enrichment purposes. Although the IAEA allegedly sponsored some of the visits, according to the facility's owner, Bengt Lillja the Syrians made additional separate trips. [6]

The removal of uranium from phosphoric acid is a dual-use activity: whereas the 1986 project focused on obtaining uranium for a nuclear fuel cycle, the 1996 program emphasized removing uranium and other hazardous substances in order to purify the phosphoric acid for use in fertilizers. As noted by the Swedish Defense Research Agency in 2004, it was unclear whether this shift signaled a legitimate interest in the industrial application or a cover to stymy stricter IAEA policies on nonproliferation. [7] The fact that AECS, rather than Syria's General Organization for Food Industry, was primarily responsible for the pilot plant could raise suspicions about the plant's continued role in nuclear applications. Regardless of Syria's intended use for the plant, the byproduct of the purification process was uranium, and the IAEA later revealed that inspectors "observed some hundreds of kilograms of yellowcake" at a 2004 visit to the facility. [8]

After Israel bombed the building at Al-Kibar in 2007, some of the initial news reports erroneously reported that the destroyed facility was a plant for extracting uranium from phosphoric acid rather than a nuclear reactor. [9] Nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis argued at the time that Syria's phosphate extraction program is an uneconomical form of uranium mining and, absent conversion and enrichment facilities, posed little proliferation risk. [10] However, the discovery of anthropogenic, or man-made, uranium at the site of the destroyed alleged reactor at Al-Kibar raised suspicions that Syria may have planned to use extracted natural uranium in an enrichment-free fuel cycle. The Al-Kibar reactor would have run on natural uranium fuel similarly to North Korea's Yongbyon reactor, and would have produced weapons-usable plutonium in its spent fuel. [11]

In August 2008 and July 2009, the IAEA also found traces of anthropogenic uranium in swipe samples taken at the SRR-1 Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR). [12] After Syria's initial explanation did not match the IAEA's findings, Syrian officials acknowledged previously undeclared activities at the MNSR using uranyl nitrate processed from yellowcake obtained from the phosphoric acid pilot plant. [13] On 20 August 2010 the IAEA sent a letter to Syria requesting access to the Homs facility, but Syria replied that the pilot plant was "not subject to Syria's Safeguards Agreement with the Agency." [14] Nonetheless, in February of the next year, Syria approved the IAEA's request to visit Homs, which occurred on 1 April 2011. [15] The Agency "took environmental samples from specified locations and destructive analysis samples from specific batches of the yellowcake by-product of the phosphoric acid purification." [16] The results of these tests were "not inconsistent" with AECS statements that yellowcake from Homs was the original source of the uranium particles at the SRR-1. [17]

Sources:
[1] "Uranium Recovery from Phosphoric Acid," Project Number SYR/3/003, IAEA-TC Project Datasheet, www-tc.iaea.org.
[2] "Uranium Recovery from Phosphoric Acid," Project Number SYR/3/003, IAEA-TC Project Datasheet, www-tc.iaea.org.
[3] "Uranium Recovery from Phosphoric Acid: SYR/3/003," IAEA, 30 December 1992, www-tc.iaea.org; "SYR/3/003 - Report on Pre-feasibility Study on the Recovery of Uranium from Phosphoric Acid," IAEA Technical Cooperation Report, 12 November 1992, www-tc.iaea.org.
[4] "Purification of Phosphoric Acid," Project Number SYR/3/005, IAEA-TC Project Datasheet, www-tc.iaea.org.
[5] "Purification of Phosphoric Acid," Project Number SYR/3/005, IAEA-TC Project Datasheet, www-tc.iaea.org; Joshua Pollack, "A Dead End in Damascus," Arms Control Wonk, 7 February 2011, www.armscontrolwonk.com.
[6] Wyn Q. Bowen, and Joanna Kidd, "The Nuclear Capabilities and Ambitions of Iran's Neighbors," in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, eds. Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson (Carlisle: The Strategic Studies Institute, 2005), pp. 72-73.
[7] Magnus Normark et al., "Syria and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," FOI Swedish Defence Research Agency, June 2004, p.31, www2.foi.se.
[8] 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.
[9] Glenn Kessler, "Syria-N.Korea Reports Won't Stop Talks," The Washington Post, 15 September 2007, www.washingtonpost.com; Jeffrey Lewis, "Extracting Uranium from Phosphates," Arms Control Wonk, 20 September 2007, www.armscontrolwonk.com.
[10] Jeffrey Lewis, "Extracting Uranium from Phosphates," Arms Control Wonk, 20 September 2007, www.armscontrolwonk.com.
[11] Jane's Intelligence Group, "Nuclear, Syria: Proliferation," Jane's CBRN Assessments, 2 July 2008, www.janes.com.
[12] 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.
[13] 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, www.iaea.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/2010/47, 6 September 2010, 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/2011/30, 24 May 2011, 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/2011/30, 24 May 2011, www.iaea.org.
[17] 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.

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