Ten weeks have passed since the Israel Air Force attacked in Syria, and there is still no reliable information about the precise target that was destroyed, or about the importance and necessity of the attack. Since Israel keeps maintaining its veil of secrecy, Everything that is known comes from leaks by anonymous U.S. administration officials to several of the major American media outlets. What is almost certain, judging from the leaks, are the following facts: A nuclear site built by the Syrians was attacked, and there was some connection to know-how and technology transferred from North Korea. The prevailing assumption is that it was a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that was in stages of construction, that would have enabled Syria to produce plutonium to manufacture a nuclear bomb.
This assumption relies first and foremost on an analysis by scholar David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington (ISIS). Albright was part of the United Nations supervisory unit in Iraq that searched for weapons of mass destruction. In recent years, he and his institute have gained a reputation as experts in nuclear proliferation. He is considered close to the U.S. intelligence communit and to have connections with the Israeli defense establishment.
A month ago Albright, as well as The Washington Post and The New York Times, published satellite photos of the site attacked in Syria. The photos were taken on August 10, 2007 and reveal a structure built adjacent to a hilly slope, not far from the Euphrates River. Incidentally, it would be interesting to learn who knew already then, about a month before the attack to take photographs of the Syrian structure from the satellite company DigitalGlobe.
A reactor without a dome
Albright compared the structure in Syria to satellite images of a structure located at the Yongbyon nuclear site in North Korea. The dimensions of the two structures are similar – about 48 by 32 meters and lacking a dome. The structure in North Korea is a nuclear research reactor built on the basis of a 1980 Chinese archetype. As opposed to the Western countries, in the Communist bloc countries, reactors commonly have a flat roof and lack a dome. For example, the reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where the radioactive leakage disaster occurred in 1985, had no dome.
The official production capacity of the reaction in Yongbyon, which was fueled with enriched uranium, is 5 megawatts, but the experts estimate that in fact its capacity had been extended. Over the years, particularly during the period when North Korea was not under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it produced plutonium from the nuclear fuel rods. U.S. intelligence estimates that even after the nuclear test conducted about a year ago (a test which failed), North Korea still has reserves of about 40 kilograms of plutonium, which is sufficient to produce 10 atom bombs. This plutonium is not under supervision, and North Korea could have concealed it in its laboratories or sold it to another country – Syria, for example.
Albright’s assessments, which hold that what was attacked in Syria was a nuclear reactor, have become almost an authoritative voice. They have been unreservedly adopted all over the world, Israeli media included.
But Prof. Uzi Even of Tel Aviv University is challenging them here for the first time. On the basis of an analysis of the same satellite photos, which have been published in the media and on Web sites and are accessible to everyone, he believes that the structure that was attacked and destroyed was not a nuclear reactor. Even, a former Meretz MK, is a chemist who until 1968 worked at the nuclear reactor in Dimona (KAMAG – Hebrew for the Nuclear Research Center). For years he has been keeping track of, and writing about, Israel’s nuclear policy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide.
Even’s questions relate to several substantive issues. First, in the reactor in Yongbyon, one can clearly see a chimney, which is necessary for the emission of the radioactive gases (incidentally, based on the emission of the gases experts can determine the capacity of the reactor). In the satellite photos of the structure in Syria there is no chimney. It could be claimed that the Syrians may not have had time to build it. This is a reasonable answer, but it is overshadowed by the fact that there is evidence that the structure was under construction already four years ago. There are satellite photos of the site from 2003. In these photos one can clearly see in one of the building walls openings, which disappeared in the 2007 photos. “We can assume that construction began even before 2003,” says Even. “In all those years, five years or even more, a chimney had still not been built? Very strange.”
No less strange in his opinion is the fact that the “reactor” did not have cooling towers. The pumping station seen in the photos, 5 kilometers from the site, cannot, according to him, be a substitute for such towers. “A structure without cooling towers cannot be a reactor,” he says, pointing to the satellite photo from Yongbyon, in which one can clearly see the cooling tower, with steam rising from it.
Another structure essential for a reactor is missing from the Syrian photos: a plutonium separation facility. As mentioned, the reactor is fueled by enriched uranium of fuel rods, which undergo a process of radiation. In order to turn them into plutonium, they have to be processed chemically in a plutonium separation facility.
And there is an additional question. If this was, in fact, a nuclear reactor, whose construction was not completed, clearly it would have taken the Syrians several years until they were able to operate it and produce plutonium. Why was Israel in a rush to attack a reactor that was under construction, years before it would have become operational? Was it willing to risk an all-out war with Syria because of a reactor in stages of construction? (A war Israel was afraid would erupt last summer, even without any connection to the nuclear issue.) This is very unlikely.
To give an example, the attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 was carried out very shortly before it would have become operational. From this, we may conclude that a nuclear reactor under construction, which is far from endangering Israel, should not have been a worthy target for attack.
Even more dangerous
All these explanations and others lead Even to believe that what was destroyed was not a nuclear reactor. If this is the case, what was the purpose of the structure?
“In my estimation this was something very nasty and vicious, and even more dangerous than a reactor,” says Even. “I have no information, only an assessment, but I suspect that it was a plant for processing plutonium, namely a factory for assembling the bomb.”
In other words, Syria already had several kilograms of plutonium, and it was involved in building a bomb factory (the assembling of one bomb requires about four kilograms of fissionable material).
Processing the plutonium and assembling the bomb require utmost caution, because plutonium is one of the most toxic and radioactive materials. One microgram can kill one person, and a gram is capable of killing a million people. Handling it requires special lathes, but because of its lethal nature nobody is allowed to come into direct contact with plutonium or with the lathes. That is why there is a need to build labs containing dozens of glove boxes, which isolate and separate the worker from the material and the equipment.
What reinforces Even’s suspicion that the structure attacked in Syria was in fact a bomb assembly plant is the fact that the satellite photos taken after the bombing clearly show that the Syrians made an effort to bury the entire site under piles of earth. “They did so because of the lethal nature of the material that was in the structure, and that can be plutonium,” he said. That may also be the reason they refused to allow IAEA inspectors to visit the site and take samples of the earth, which would give away their secret.
Another piece of information crucial for reinforcing Even’s assumption is the scant attention paid in the Israeli media to an op-ed published last month in The Wall Street Journal by two members of the U.S. Congress, Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Hoekstra is the senior Republican member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Ros-Lehtinen is the senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They expressed their anger at the fact that the Bush administration “has thrown an unprecedented veil of secrecy around the Israeli airstrike. It has briefed only a handful of very senior members of Congress, leaving the vast majority of foreign relations and intelligence committee members in the dark. We are among the very few who were briefed, but we have been sworn to secrecy on this matter.”
They write in the article that Syria received “nuclear expertise or material” from North Korea, and in the same breath they mention Iran, without explaining why. They claim that the administration leaks are intentionally vague: to justify the Israeli attack but also to blur North Korea’s part in the affair.
The two Congressmen have a clear agenda: They want the administration to remove the cloak of secrecy and tell the members of Congress and the public the truth about what happened, in the belief that such information will lead the majority in Congress to understand that the negotiations with North Korea should be stopped.
North Korea’s consent to shut down the Yongbyon reactor and to allow renewed international monitoring of it (although it is not clear what will happen to the fissionable material in its possession – enriched plutonium and uranium), was achieved after exhausting contacts that lasted for about five years, with China, Russia, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. In exchange, North Korea will receive economic assistance and fuel. Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen are apparently aware that revealing the truth about North Korea’s role will lead to pressure on the U.S. administration to discontinue the contacts with the regime in Pyongyang. But for exactly the same reason, the administration is not interested in doing so, particularly not at this sensitive time when it is trying to prevent Iran’s nuclear program.
And what about Israel? Wasn’t it in Israel’s interest to publicize what was bombed in Syria? Of course it was. Even more so if this was a plant for assembling a nuclear bomb based on information, technology and fissionable material that Syria re ceived from North Korea, perhaps with the knowledge and consent of Iran, or even more than that.
Then why is Israel insisting on continuing to maintain total secrecy? The only logical explanation (except for the embarrassment of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which doesn’t particularly bother Israel), is the desire not to make things hard for the U.S. administration.