At Al Kibar

Norman Dombey

A building at Al Kibar in eastern Syria was attacked by Israeli aircraft early on the morning of 6 September last year. After the raid the Syrian authorities bulldozed the site, presumably to hide what remained from inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At an intelligence briefing on 24 April, seven months later, US officials showed a video and satellite images of the site, together with satellite images taken in 2005 and 2006 of a large building being constructed there. A further photograph of the inside of the building showed a structure very similar to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.

The US has presented evidence of this kind before. In February 2003, Colin Powell showed the UN Security Council photographs and videos of what he said had been, before it was levelled by the Iraqis, a chemical weapons complex at Al Musayyib. But US claims about Al Kibar probably have more substance. Syria possesses a small Chinese research reactor and has been interested in buying a larger reactor for many years. In 1998, Syria and Russia signed an agreement to the effect that Russia would construct a centre for nuclear research, including a 25 megawatt research reactor about the same size as the one at Yongbyon. The US put pressure on Russia, and the plan came to nothing. In 2003, the Financial Times was told by Russia’s ministry of atomic energy that Syria still wanted the centre and that Russia ‘in principle’ could supply it. Again US pressure prevented an agreement.

North Korea has been Syria’s ally for many years, and has supplied it with missiles. According to the intelligence briefing, construction of the reactor began in 2001 or 2002, and North Korean personnel have been visiting the site ever since. A photograph was shown at the briefing of a senior North Korean nuclear official with his Syrian counterpart.

The Yongbyon reactor is modelled on the British Magnox reactors, the first of which, Calder Hall, was opened by the Queen in 1956; others, at Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Wylfa in Anglesey, are still producing electricity for the grid. Calder Hall was operated throughout its long life (it closed down only in 2003) to produce plutonium for military use. Magnox reactors are particularly easy to build and fuel as they need neither enrichment facilities nor specialised steel pressure vessels. North Korea built and fuelled the Yongbyon reactor without outside help.

I wrote about the North Korean nuclear programme in the LRB in September 2004, by which time the Bush administration had decided to break the 1994 Agreed Framework deal negotiated by Clinton. According to the deal, North Korea would disband its nuclear programme in return for help with energy supplies; each side declared that it had ‘no hostile intent’ against the other. But in January 2002, the US declared North Korea part of the ‘axis of evil’ and broke the agreement, ceasing its supply of fuel oil. North Korea responded by withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and expelling IAEA inspectors from Yongbyon. In February 2003, the 5 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon was restarted, along with the plutonium-producing reprocessing plant. On 9 October 2006, North Korea exploded a nuclear weapon.

By this time, Bush had agreed to talk to North Korea, but only in the context of multi-party negotiations. In February last year the US, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea and South Korea reached an agreement which more or less reverted to the one agreed in 1994: North Korea promised to rejoin the NPT; the work at Yongbyon was halted and the IAEA inspectors returned. The toing and froing of the inspectors at Yongbyon turns out to be important in understanding what happened at Al Kibar.

Construction of the Syrian reactor was completed in the summer of 2007, according to the US intelligence briefing, and ‘it was nearing operational capability.’ But the briefing also stated that the reactor was attacked ‘before it was loaded with nuclear fuel’. The reactor had never been in operation. It would have had to have been up and running for several months before the fuel rods could have been extracted in order to produce any plutonium. So Syria, unlike North Korea, had no capacity to explode a nuclear weapon: there would have been ample time for the IAEA to deal with the matter diplomatically.

Why wasn’t there any fuel? Only two countries are experienced in the manufacture of fuel for Magnox reactors: North Korea and Britain. It is unlikely that British Nuclear Fuels had agreed a contract with Damascus. North Korea does have a fuel fabrication facility at Yongbyon. It was closed as part of the Agreed Framework in 1994 and, according to the IAEA, it remains closed. A 50 megawatt reactor was built at Yongbyon but has never been used. There is a complete core of fresh fuel for this reactor; there was some fresh fuel for the 5 megawatt reactor, too, but it was used to refuel the reactor when it was restarted in 2003 and refuelled in 2005. There may have been some left over. Sigfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, has visited North Korea on several occasions since 2002, and acknowledges that ‘North Korea could conceivably field one more reactor-load of fuel rods from the partial load of fuel for the 5 megawatt reactor and the uranium core prepared for the 50 megawatt reactor.’

But the fuel core for the 50 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon came under IAEA supervision in July 2007 (it has been open to view by the US team since October). Since then, it hasn’t been possible for North Korea to send fuel to Al Kibar. Nor could it have been sent before July 2007 because the IAEA inspectors would have seen that the quantity of fuel for the 50 megawatt reactor had diminished. Hecker told me that ‘the fuel is still a mystery. They had spare fuel when they shut down Yongbyon in 1994. The best we know is that this is the fuel they used when they reloaded in 2003 and in 2005. I saw the spare fuel in 2006: less than a full load of 5 megawatt reactor fuel and enough for a complete core destined originally for the 50 megawatt reactor. This fuel is still there … So, the bottom line is, we are not sure from where the North Koreans got a reactor load of fuel, if they really did supply it.’

So what is all this about? In my 2004 article I talked about the case of Pakistan and Libya and the way the Pakistani engineer A.Q. Khan smuggled centrifuge blueprints from Holland to set up Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme; how he then ran a black market in centrifuge components; and how Gaddafi managed to make the transition from Lockerbie terrorist to friend of Bush and Blair. But Libya didn’t simply opt to become an ally of the US and UK. MI6 and the CIA conducted a sting operation, in which Libya’s enrichment deal with Khan’s network was allowed to continue so that Khan could be put out of business. With Gaddafi’s co-operation, a ship carrying centrifuge components was seized in Italy en route to Libya in full view of the world’s press.

North Korea may well have sold Syria a reactor in 2001. There is evidence that the original plan had been to restart the fuel fabrication plant to fuel the reactor. But the six-party agreement and the thawing of relations between North Korea and the US changed the situation. North Korea could simply have pulled out of the deal with Syria. But Israel was extremely worried about Iran’s enrichment activities, and had a different plan in mind. The US government knew there was no fuel available at Yongbyon for Al Kibar (Hecker would have told them, and the US has its own ways of finding out the results of IAEA inspections), and that the fuel fabrication plant was out of operation. It is highly unlikely that this information would not have been shared with Israel. The intelligence officials stated that they ‘did discuss policy options with Israel. Israel considered a Syrian nuclear capability to be an existential threat to the state of Israel.’

A reactor with no fuel, and no prospect of getting any, is not a threat to anyone, let alone an existential threat. Israel, however, does regard Iran’s enrichment project at Natanz to be an existential threat. So just as Gaddafi was used to put Khan out of business, it seems that North Korea was used to warn Iran that nuclear projects that threaten Israel will not be tolerated. That there was no fuel for the Al Kibar reactor was of no significance. North Korean personnel continued to visit Syria and construction continued at Al Kibar up until the Israeli raid last September. The charade had to be played out.