Mark HibbsAssad’s Uranium Inventory

Yesterday morning here over a latte and a croissant–Kurfuerstendamm Ecke Schlueterstrasse–I got my ear bent by someone telling me that Israel and Western countries are now worried about the fate of 50 metric tons of uranium secretly stashed away in Syria. Reflecting for a couple of minutes after clicking off my cell, I strongly suspected that I was not the sole recipient of that message from certain quarters, and, sure enough, 24 hours later, my intuition proved to be spot on.

This morning a small number of international news outlets all ran that little item up the flagpole. I admit I was intrigued by the lead we were all spoon-fed yesterday (“Missing Uranium in Syria May be Headed to Iran”) since in fact the war between Assad’s forces and rebel troops around Damascus the last few weeks has been hotting up. If there is a cache of uranium in the greater Damascus area, as our interlocutors insist, it very well could be in the crossfire of antagonists and hence right now making Israel and some Western governments nervous, and possibly may have been part of some recent chit-chatting on Syria at the IAEA.

The territory surrounding the Syrian capital is not firmly under the control of either side, and the idea that uranium might be bestowed on Iran by either party is hardly far-fetched, since there is other evidence suggesting that both Assad and the rebels are courting Iran’s favor. Whoever has his mitts on any uranium in the country might be willing to spirit it to Iran in return for good will, money, or hardware. (If after reading this you still don’t understand why it’s important for the IAEA to establish the completeness and correctness of countries’ nuclear declarations, then you’ll probably never get it.)

But in the end, I gave this item a belated shrug yesterday in favor of more pressing matters on my plate because, frankly, there wasn’t any real new information here about the alleged nuclear material or its whereabouts.

No doubt, as did the reporters who had been dialed up about this, yesterday I quickly homed in on the Marj as-Sultan site as the likely location for the uranium in Syria, as I assume we had all been told by informants that the material was someplace on the outskirts of Damascus. Given that we’ve known for awhile about three locations in Syria which the IAEA has reason to believe may be related to the bombed installation at Al-Kibar, deemed last year by Director General Yukiya Amano as most likely a destroyed nuclear reactor, looking at Marj as-Sultan first was a no-brainer because it is the only one of the three sites in a Damascus suburb.

But not to anticipate. Where near Damascus is the uranium, I had asked yesterday. My interlocutors didn’t want to go there. That little omission might possibly be significant, because in October last year, this site asserted that Syrian rebels had determined that uranium was found to be at a different location north of Damascus (Marj as-Sultan is east) associated with chemical weapons materials which were being stored there. (Last night I queried that website for the link to five YouTube videos it asserted that rebels had made and which had originally broadcast this allegation; the site’s managers today told me they could not locate the videos, and instead attached this link to a Bill Gertz article which claims to know what is in the video clips, and asserts even further that the chemical site hosts “enriched uranium.”)

If Syria intends to ship to Iran uranium (in this case natural uranium metal and at least some of it in the form of fuel assemblies each containing eight pins), then Syria most certainly would have to tell the IAEA. If Iran obtains it, Iran would have to do the same. Article III.2 of the NPT and Article 34 of the model NPT safeguards agreement require that this material can’t change hands between Syria and Iran unless safeguards are attached. If Syria were to export it, it would have to notify to the IAEA the identity, quantity, composition, and material balance area where the material comes from; the country where it is exported to; dates and locations for shipping; scheduled dates for dispatch and arrival, and; the point of transfer and date of transfer.

All these requirements would likely be moot, of course, if any uranium metal fuel in Syria subject to transport were not to have been declared to the IAEA. And you can bet that 50 MT of uranium metal would not have been declared, since Syria continues to deny that it was running a clandestine nuclear program when Israeli aircraft took off for Al-Kibar.

The FT account this morning appeared to  insinuate that the “gradual removal of a large orchard for no apparent reason” near Marj as-Sultan constituted suspicious behavior. Tree-cutting as a signature for nefarious nuclear activity?  They may speculate. But in fact we don’t know so far whether anyone looking for this uranium in Syria has ever actually seen any.

At the time the civil war broke out, the IAEA had not obtained any specific information identifying beyond any doubt where the fuel for Al-Kibar was currently located. Information pointing to nuclear fuel-related activities at Marj as-Sultan indicated there was equipment on site that might have been used to process or fabricate nuclear fuel. But had anyone clearly identified nuclear fuel rods or assemblies at Marj as-Sultan before the war broke out? Not to my knowledge.

Today the situation may be different. Assad is losing his grip, and his military can no longer keep adversaries from coming and going, including in and out of strategic facilities. If there is in fact any hidden uranium in Syria, the number of people who know where it is might be growing.



  1. Ataune (History)

    “If after reading this you still don’t understand why it’s important for the IAEA to establish the completeness and correctness of countries’ nuclear declarations, then you’ll probably never get it.”

    The key word here is DECLARATION.

    Now one thing I don’t get in your post, are you saying 50,000 kg of non-declared U had been previousely detected in Syria by Israel and Western countries ? Isn’t this clearly a serious breach of Syrian Safeguard and shouldn’t this have been reported to the UNSC immediately, given the perpetual acrimony between the West and Syria ?

    On another token, Can’t we conclude from your whole story that it’s in the best interest of arms control militants to have the Syrian political situation brought back to normal by pushing some allied countries to stop the flow of arms and money to the insurgents ?

    • mark (History)

      If there are 50 metric tons of uranium metal in a NNWS, and it isn’t declared, then the declaration isn’t complete. Basta. Finito. Schluss-Aus. Case closed.

    • Magpie (History)

      Well they had a reactor. We know they’ve got some quantity of fuel. They already suffered the terrible wrath of the IAEA for it. It ‘aint a secret. No intelligence agency required.

      I’m not sure what your point is. You doubt they have material? 50t would seem surprisingly large, but there’s got to be SOME.

      And sure, instability is terrible for proliferation in a country with CBRN weapons – that’s kinda the point re: non-proliferation. No matter how careful folk are, stuff happens. Given that in a long enough timeframe instability, accidents, regime-change, and other disruptive events of some form is more or less guaranteed in any country, the only sure answer is to not have those weapons in the first place.

      A nut that gets control of a scud might kill a few people. A nut that gets control of a scud with a chemical warhead will do a LOT more damage. A small cadre of nuts might wipe out half a city and even start a war in a way that could never happen with a realistic supply of conventional weapons. So Assad’s regime being in firm control might be better in the short term, but in the long term it would probably mean more material available for misuse the next time things break down.

      Pick your evil.

    • rwendland (History)

      mark, you’re correct for 50 tonnes.

      But it is perhaps worth noting that if they so far only had a partial fuel load, less than 10 tonnes NatU, and Syria had invoked Article 36 exemptions in its CSA (INFCIRC/407) – then this amount would be exempted from safeguards. If they wanted to test fabricate some fuel this might have been a very attractive approach to go with up to the point they declared the reactor.

      The IC leaks may be that Syria was about to load some fuel into the BOE, but were they saying it was a full fuel load? Maybe it was a partial load to test equipment, procedures and confirm dimensions, which perhaps they thought they could do with a below-safeguards amount of NatU fuel before declaring the reactor to the IAEA. Seems like a possibility worth consideration.

  2. Kellie Strøm (History)

    @Ataune – If “back to normal” means back to full control by a police state with secret undeclared WMD programs, that doesn’t seem something arms control ‘militants’ would find all that desirable, even if it were achievable by the means you propose.

  3. Ataune (History)

    Sorry about making this a one on one discussion but that’s what I hypothetically assumed when I asked the first question: that you are right about DECLARATION.

    Let’s suppose that Amano believes that the secretariat doesn’t need the BG acquiesence for intrusive and comprehensive query into the Syrian nuclear activities; He also thinks of DECLARATION as such an encompassing, time flexible and geographically wide definition that he can go and ask for military sites inspections, without extra safeguard agreement with the target state or authorisation by the BG. Then the question become why didn’t he act on such intelligence in the first place when the existence of 50,0000 Kg of un-declared fissionnable material in a NNWS was for sure reported to him by Israeli and Western agencies ?

  4. Ataune (History)


    Even if one accept your qualification of the state of Syria, this “back to normal” is both in the interests of the arms control “community” and the US. Let’s not forget countries like Pakistan and, a priori, Israel which are not exactly nirvana when talking about democracy.

  5. mark (History)

    Amano (and before him ElBaradei) repeatedly requested from Syria access to sites which were suspected of being affiliated with the Syrian nuclear program and were undeclared. Syria refused.

  6. Mohammad (History)

    “If after reading this you still don’t understand why it’s important for the IAEA to establish the completeness and correctness of countries’ nuclear declarations, then you’ll probably never get it.”

    There are many many important things to do out there, but what matters is just how you want to make them happen. Important things might be made happen using extra-legal, confrontational, trust-destroying and collaterally-damaging means, or by using nondiscriminatory (and within legal bounds), realistic, mutually acceptable and goodwill-building means. This is what the disagreement fundamentally stems from, not the main objective – as you described – per se.

  7. Sharon Squassoni (History)

    Hi, Mark. Forgive me for not following this closely, but do we know that it’s uranium metal? I’ve only seen one story about DPRK shipping uranium to Syria, and a lot of stories that it exited Syria to Iran after the bombing. Do you think the DPRK shipped them fuel rods?

    • mark (History)

      Hi Sharon.

      There are a number of points you raise in asking that question.

      Based on my information, the reactor built in Syria would require NATU metal fuel. So if there’s fabricated fuel for the reactor somewhere, it would be in metallic uranium form.

      As I said in my post, I didn’t bite on this story when I was informed about it on Tuesday morning Jan.8 here in Berlin.

      One of the reasons was that I am told on what I believe to be good authority that Israel’s decision to bomb the installation at Al-Kibar was predicated by an intelligence assessment that Syria was about to load fuel into the reactor. If Syria had done that, the situation diplomatically for Israel would have been a different one–If it were to bomb the reactor in that case, the international community would have seen it as an attack on a nuclear installation with nuclear material inside and therefore a more serious provocation than the bombing of a building empty of “radioactive material” (which for enraged op-ed writers would include NATU I guess…) The other problem for Israel would have been that, had the reactor been close to going critical, the greater would be the likelihood that Syria would have declared the facility to the IAEA before Israel destroyed it; the declaration would have shielded the installation against an Israeli attack. You might remember that MEB went ballistic over the attack. Israel heard about it from him–and very much in public.

      Given this background, I am aware that to some people the threat presented by fuel which may be still at large in Syria might be an argument that the attack on Al-Kibar was justified. So I withhold my judgment that there is any there (nuclear fuel) there (“outskirts of Damascus”) so far. As you say, if there was fuel delivered, it may be somewhere else by now.

      If I were to guess–and it would only be a guess and not based on secure information–I would venture that it would be likely that North Korea agreed to provide Syria an initial supply of fabricated fuel for the reactor, and then planned to train Syrians in the arts of fuel fabrication and reprocessing during the first few years of reactor operation. If that was indeed the plan, then there well might be some uranium oxide at large for this project somewhere, especially if the intelligence information is good and points to some kind of fuel processing operation at Marj al Sultan.

  8. blowback (History)

    I believe the uranium is the by-product of phosphate mining in Syria. As such, is it necessary for the Syrian government to declare to the IAEA if it is not part of a nuclear program?

    BTW, after a Syrian nuclear facility turned out to be a textile factory, one should regard all claims about Syrian nuclear facilities with considerable suspicion and that includes the alleged reactor.

    • Anon (History)

      No mining U ore is not covered in standard Safeguards.

    • mark (History)

      Blowback, why do you believe that it is from phosphates? You’ve got information the rest of us don’t? See my comments to others on this post–Where is the stipulation that if it is Syrian production it doesn’t have to declared? Who told you that? It’s wrong.

  9. fafnir (History)

    Sounds like a potential excuse for a foreign “intervention” which seems to have been the main plan for the insurgents from day one.The big thing lacking here of course is a little thing called proof,without that its just so much hot air

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    —If the Syrian government had a secret nuclear program, in the sense of a group of guys at a conference table sworn to secracy doing estimates “on the backs of envelopes,” would they now be in the position of needing someplace to hide to avoid execution? Not because of what they knew, but because somebody will want revenge?

    —Do I have to mention that one of the 15 people killed by partisans along with Mussolini was innocent?

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    Pietro Calistri is at least claimed to be innocent of anything when he was executed in 1945.

  12. Anon (History)

    Were your interlocutors from a non-NPT middle eastern country?

    I don’t worry about nat. U.

    Big fat YAWN.

    I worry about the 16,000 kg of missing US origin **HEU**:

  13. Irshad (History)

    Great! – the Western supporters of the foreign backed (Turkey,Qatar, Saudi) armed rebels have decided to escalate the WMD meme, from chemical weapons to now nuclear material. This is a desperate act of those who want the US/EU to militarily intervene in Syria to overthrow the govt of Syria. How does, anyone expect to resolve the Iran dossier, when one of her allies, Syria (which she has a defence and security treaty with) is been destroyed (after trying to destroy Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas in 2009 and 2012 and currently Syria?

    Also Mark, you are wrong to say “Assad is losing his grip, and his military can no longer keep adversaries from coming and going, including in and out of strategic facilities.” – it seems to be the deliberate act of govt. forces to abandon far flaung none-strategic outposts to secure more important areas, before going back to take control of it later. Name one city the rebels are in full control of?

    • Anon2 (History)


      “Great! – the Western supporters of the foreign backed (Turkey,Qatar, Saudi) armed rebels have decided to escalate the WMD meme … to overthrow the govt of Syria.”

      “Google” Translate:

      “Great! – the [Eastern] supporter[s] of the foreign backed ([Iran, Russia]) [Syrian Regime] have decided to [de]escalate the WMD meme … to [maintain] the govt of Syria.”

    • Cameron (History)

      Irshad – Naming a city that the rebels are in full control of doesn’t negate the premise that that Assad’s control is slipping. A better question would be “name one city the rebels are not active in.”

      As for the rest of it. It’s a civil war. Both sides have outside backing. Neither side is lily white and pure at heart, but some sides are less worrying to my mind than others. Make of that what you will.

  14. Irshad (History)

    Who are the opposition and what’s their vision for Syria? If you know this – please do share it with the rest of the world including the Syrian people! Going to bed with Salafi-Takfiri rebels (who were once known as Al-Q) to topple Syrian govt. in an attempt to squeeze Iran and kick Russia out of the Med is going to comeback to haunt their backers. Blowback can be such a bitch!

    Last time I checked, Assad is a Syrian, who has the backing of not only the Baath Party but a majority of the Syrian populace. Shame to see what Seymour Hersh wrote about in 2007, is shedding a Arab/Muslim blood (which is cheap for Westerners) anyway:

    • Anon2 (History)


      I believe with high probability that Assad is killing his own people. Therefore, I believe that change, any change, is morally the best outcome because I believe the new government will be less oppressive.


  15. irshad (History)

    pont taken/understood – but taking your logic one step forward, can we say that US/NATO/Karzai control is slipping, in Afgnaistan due to the Taliban?
    There have been instances where the local populace forced the rebels not to enter their city/town. Suwayda, a city not faar from Dara is quite and peaceful.

    • Cameron (History)

      I’d say that US/NATO control of Afghanistan is slipping certainly. Karzai’s control of Afghanistan is something I’m not informed enough to begin to guess, but I suspect it’s not much better.

      As for Syria, does Suwayda have a significant arms cache or military base which would interest the rebels as a military objective? From an arms control perspective, I worry not about Syria having WMDs (it’s chemical arsenal being an effective deterrant to the nuclear program the Israel doesn’t [admit to] have[ing])

      I worry about CHAOS near WMDs. I worry about extreme elements in the rebels getting control of WMDs and an increasingly unstable Assad regime turning to them in the vain hope of hanging on.

  16. Cthippo (History)

    I don’t know if Iran would turn down an offer of free Uranium, but I doubt it would be worth the hassle for them. They would most likely have to re-convert it and integrate it into their existing process stream and I’m just not sure it would be worth the headache for them on a technical level, much less the diplomatic fuss that would come with it.

    If such a transfer were to take place the US and Israel would make a mountain out of the molehill because “aaugh, bad people trading uranium, aagh! Panic” when in fact having it securely stored in Iran and accounted for would probably be better for everybody involved. One could make an argument that Iran would be doing the world a favor by taking possession of this putative fuel and placing it under safeguards with the rest of their material.

    This is the kind of situation where the politics massively outweighs the reality.

    • Anon (History)

      Correct on all counts.

      Anyway, the whole thing is an allegation.

      And, it’s natural U metal, not enriched. Not like the 16 tons of HEU and weapons grade Pu we have lost abroad.

    • mark (History)

      Getting uranium from an outside source would be a “hassle” for Iran? Why? Iran already has an established track record of not declaring its imports of nuclear material. Iran is having issues concerning production of uranium it mines domestically. Beyond this I don’t understand why “reconverting [the uranium] and integrating it into its existing process stream” should be a problem for Iran. They have a complete nuclear material chemical processing sector (minus fabrication for light-water fuel) Fordo was not a declared facility before 2009. Natanz was not a declared facility before 2003. To conclude that the US and Israel are making “a mountain out of a molehill” in this case is to ignore these facts in the record. Again and again, the point seems to have to be underscored that Iran is not a country which has inspired trust concerning the completeness of its nuclear declarations. Verification only can resolve these issues, not speculation and opinion-making about whether or not Iran may or may not take this course or that.

  17. Denis (History)

    Mark, before the US gets sucked into another Colin Powell Kodak-moment, I think we need to apply some good old scientific objectivity to this Marj as Sultan story.

    With respect to FT you properly observe: “Tree-cutting as a signature for nefarious nuclear activity? They may speculate. But in fact we don’t know so far whether anyone looking for this uranium in Syria has ever actually seen any.” Bingo! Well said. Powell rues the day he didn’t have the guts/intelligence to say the same thing about Iraq before shocking and awing us all with his capricious interpretations of satellite images before the UN.

    But may I suggest we need to shine the cold light of skepticism a bit broader. This whole Marj as-Sultan thing is being pushed by David Albright, and that should set off deafening alarms, particularly in another deja-vu-all-over-again situation in which the US is considering military intervention.

    The ISIS article you link to says that Marj as Sultan is a “facility . . . reportedly intended for processing uranium yellowcake into uranium tetrafluoride (UF4).” Albright doesn’t source this allegation. It’s a pretty heavy-duty allegation to make based on the goofiest of evidence, below.

    Albright doesn’t provide coordinates for Marj as Sultan so readers can check his assertions of what the evidence is for themselves. Marj as Sultan is a helicopter base about 8 km SE of Damascus. The specific building Albright is talking about is in a populated area about 2.5 km W of the airbase. It’s at: 33°29’41.99″ N 36°26’26.05″ E

    Albright claims that the IAEA reported in 2008 that member states provide information that there were the three suspicious sites in Syria. But the link Albright provides is to a 30-second clip of Amano talking, but not saying anything about these three sites, or any three sites. I see no evidence that these allegations are coming from IAEA.

    Albright also claims that a 2010 article in Sueddeutsch Zeitung identifies the three sites. The article is in German and I haven’t translated it. But the same rag has figured heavily in Albright’s attack on Parchin. So the modus operandi is repeating itself with some precision. Also in common with Albright’s attack on Parchin is his wild “interpretations” of satellite photos. With respect to Parchin, the site was deemed a nuclear weapons development site because they put a pink tarp over one of the buildings and there was water on the ground.

    In the present case the “smoking gun” that Marj as Sultan is a nuke site is workers “pouring a material on the ground surrounding the larger building. There also appear to be trucks and other vehicles present that may be involved in this operation. This activity may represent an effort to lay down a new concrete or asphalt foundation around the building.”

    The fact that asphalt was poured can hardly be disputed. If you go to GE historical view, Jul24.2008, you can actually see workers pouring the new asphalt. What is in dispute is, to paraphrase your own incredulous position: Laying asphalt as a signature for nefarious nuclear activity?

    And this is the sum total of [the] evidence linking Marj as Sultan to uranium storage or processing.

    I apologize for such a long comment, and I don’t mean to hijack your post, but I think post-Iraq we have an ethical duty to expose nonsense when it appears. Maybe in some small way we can prevent Kerry, or whoever the next Secretary of State is, from walking into the UN and pulling another Powell debacle followed by a Bush debacle of blistering a Middle East country based on “satellite evidence.”

  18. fafnir (History)

    Wouldn`t it make more sense for it to be shipped back to the dprk its hypothetically likely point of origin?

    • Anon (History)

      Heck, it could be in the US….it’s not as if we take great care with even HEU or Pu:

      If it was mined in Syria, then anyway it is not covered under safeguards.

      See also rwendland’s comment above.

    • mark (History)

      Anon: “If it was mined in Syria it is not covered under safeguards”. Processed uranium metal? Wrong. You had better read their safeguards agreement.

    • R. Rogers (History)

      I strongly advise the Anon poster to read the GAO report. I just did and it quite clearly clarifies that the HEU is in research reactors, primarily in Germany and Japan.

      Please have the decency to read the reports directly, not quoting overblown, histrionic websites that interpret them… poorly.

    • Anon (History)

      I guess that guy didn’t get the memo that it’s blame Iran week —

      @R.Rogers – GAO says —

      “Of the 55 visits made from 1994 through 2010, U.S. teams found that countries met international security guidelines approximately 50 percent of the time. DOE has taken steps to improve security at a number of facilities overseas that hold U.S. nuclear material but faces constraints.”

  19. Bradley Laing (History)

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has largely ruled out sending in ground troops to secure Syrian chemical weapons under hostile circumstances, but the Pentagon could provide some forces if the Assad regime ever agrees to a peaceful transition, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday

    • fafnir (History)

      Well isn`t that generous of them,since we`re really starting to get into the realm of the truly absurd here,why I wouldn`t even be shocked if the israelis even offered to help out

    • Anon2 (History)

      “There are widespread worries among allies and countries in the region that if Syrian President Bashar Assad is toppled, Islamic extremists could gain control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which includes sarin”

      “The United States has largely ruled out sending in ground troops to secure Syrian chemical weapons … Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said”

      More head in the sand by our “defense” department. If the Sarin comes here, I know who to blame: Leon Panetta. I’m sorry, but not planning for a contingency to destroy the Sarin when its over there is negligent.

  20. Johnboy (History)

    Mark: “(If after reading this you still don’t understand why it’s important for the IAEA to establish the completeness and correctness of countries’ nuclear declarations, then you’ll probably never get it.)”

    Oh, sure, I agree with Mark’s Motherhood Statement.
    But, then again, who doesn’t?

    The question is whether it is a sensible policy to attempt to “induce” countries to come to that party by threatening to bomb the crap out of them if they demure.

    Personally, I’d say: no, that sounds pretty counter-productive to me.

    The upcoming confirmation hearings with Hagel will show something very different i.e. that it is still the considered policy view of the US political establishment that threatening to bomb the crap outta the recalcitrants is The Way To Get Complience.

    That’s where the argument is.

    It’s not in whether Mark’s Motherhood Statement is in any way contentious because – duh – it ain’t; it’s a Motherhood Statement.

  21. mark (History)

    @rwendland: Im not just correct for 50 tons. I’m correct for any tons. There is nothing in Infcirc/153 paragraph 36 (also in paragraph 13) that says Syria can exempt any ton amounts of source material from safeguards. The exemptions themselves have to be declared to the IAEA. They aren’t amounts that Syria just can neglect to declare on the basis that Syria derives a non-nuclear rationale for keeping it secret. That aside, if as you suggest, Syria declared to the IAEA that it had 10 tons of uranium metal which it wanted to exempt for safeguards for any of the reasons stipulated in paragraph 36 (these do not include “partial fuel load”) and if you were an IAEA inspector, how would you respond? Certainly not: “Sure, 10 MT of uranium metal for a non-nuclear purpose…no problem, we’ll book it out of safeguards for you right away, no questions asked.”

    • rwendland (History)

      mark, just for clarity I’m referring to INFCIRC/153 paragraph 37, which due to an unfortunate numbering issue is Article 36 in Syria’s CSA (INFCIRC/407). I think we’re both meaning to refer to the same thing, but maybe not.

      I agree that the amount would have to be within accounting, but as I understand it, it could then undergo conversion outside safeguards without reports to the IAEA. So for example Syria could have requested that 5 tonnes of Uranium Oxides (within some yellowcake we already know they have) be exempted from safeguards under Article 36(b) (para 37(b) in INFCIRC/153) – so IAEA would know that – and then convert it to metal, then rods without having to disclose those material changes to the IAEA.

      Now if they were to put any of this partial fuel load, for testing purposes, into their BOE, then they would certainly be breaking the Design Information Articles of their CSA, but they would already have been in a very dodgy situation there already.

      Maybe I have this wrong, but I’ve looked at it quite carefully. For some time I’ve been looking out for a good paper, or other documentation, that describes the practices and procedures in detail surrounding para 37 exemptions of INFCIRC/153, but have been unable to find anything good. If you know of such a paper or doc, I’d be very pleased if you could refer me to it.

      The IAEA does not seem to give a list of states that have used para 37 exemptions, this appears to be regarded as confidential – it would be nice to know if Syria has. One state that has used it appears to be Canada for input material used to produce medical isotopes. I assume they do this for commercial confidentiality reasons, so they do not have to disclose isotope stock levels. Iraq also used it, and I’ve seen a report that historically some Euratom states did.

      Finally could you elaborate on your mention of safeguards above? Perhaps we were referring to different Articles, but Article 36 of INFCIRC/407 (para 37(b) in INFCIRC/153) says seemingly clearly:

      “At the request of Syria the Agency shall exempt from safeguards nuclear material that would otherwise be subject to safeguards, provided that the total quantity of nuclear material … may not at any time exceed … (b) ten metric tons in total of natural uranium …”

    • mark (History)


      I am looking into the question you ask regarding declaration of MT-amounts of U3O8 excepted from safeguards. There will be a serious answer to your question.

      In the meantime I would offer that, as you correctly say, if Syria were to be permitted to exempt this material, and then used the uranium to make uranium metal fuel without declaring that activity, this would constitute a violation of Syria’s safeguards agreement.

      Separately, from the logic of safeguards, for Syria to obtain an exemption from safeguards for source material, it must first declare the material to be exempted to the IAEA. In the hypothetical case you give, the IAEA would know that there were 5 tons of elemental uranium which Syria had but which were not under safeguards. For this hypothetical case, in the case of the allegation I discuss in the blog post, the IAEA would certainly request verfication that material exempted from safeguards is being used for the purposes it claimed in exempting the material. The language of Article 37 was certainly not intended to provide Syria a license not to declare source material to the IAEA and then use the material to make fuel for a clandestine reactor.

    • rwendland (History)

      mark, thanks for checking out the U3O8 exempted from safeguards possibility.

      But I think my line of reasoning is different to yours. If some U3O8 was exempted from safeguards by request to the IAEA, then I think it would be perfectly in order for that exempted material to be converted to metal and onto rods without any violation of the CSA (in a lab operation anyway – maybe building a plant would run into Design Information problems). It is a sub-SQ amount outside safeguards, so there is no need to account for what it has become.

      Consider the Canadian use of exemptions I mentioned. They appear to have been putting exempted material into a reactor, and converting it into different elements (medical isotopes), without reporting the details to the IAEA – all without violating their CSA. This is far more radical than simply converting it into other forms of the same element, as we postulate Syria might have done to avoid monitoring of sub-full fuel load amounts.

      On the point in your 3rd para: if material is exempted under para 37 (Syrian Article 36), I believe there is no requirement upon Syria to say what purpose it is to be used for, nor does IAEA have the power to check what purpose it is being used for. Supporting this view, take a look at the form IAEA offers members to request exemption from safeguards – there is one on page 14 of the 1974 Model Subsidiary Agreement as Code 6.2 (link below). In question (d) Intended use, it says only answer “if exemption is sought pursuant to Article 36(a) or (b)”, i.e. under para 37 as we postulate, there is no need for IAEA to know the intended use.

      The small difficulty I see with this postulated approach, is that domestic U3O8 is normally before the safeguards stage, too early a stage to normally apply for exemption. However imported U3O8 would already be under safeguards, so it would probably be possible to place domestic U3O8 similarly under safeguards, before asking for a para 37 exemption. A bit of a contortion that would flag something odd is going on!

      Here is the old version of the IAEA form to apply for exemption:–_Model_Subsidiary_Arrangement_Code_1-9.pdf#page=14

    • mark (History)


      Thanks–I will be very shortly looking into this, including the Canadian issue you raise.

      In the meantime, I’m informed from these quarters: 1.) the IAEA must approve exemptions under Article 37; 2.) the exceptions are not automatic, and 3.) a reason to justify the exemption is given by the country in such cases. Further, 4.) if there is further processing of material which has been exempted, or if exempted material is stored together with safeguarded material, it must be formally de-exempted.

    • rwendland (History)

      mark, I think the information you have “from these quarters” may refer to a state that has agreed the AP as well as the CSA, unlike Syria.

      AP (INFCIRC/540c) Article 2.a.(vii)(ii) places additional constraints on para 37, requiring the following information to be supplied:

      “Information regarding the quantities, uses and locations of nuclear material exempted from safeguards pursuant to [paragraph 37 of INFCIRC/153]”

      It stands to reason that this additional information is not required by an ordinary CSA, otherwise why would the AP also ask for it. This is actually convincing proof that the Syrian CSA Article 36 (para 37) does not require intended use information to be given.

      Also, if you look at the INFCIRC/66 U.S. negotiating record document for the equivalent clause, there is a statement “Unlike the provisions for suspensions of safeguards … the Agency is not given a discretionary right to grant or withhold a state a request to exempt the specified amount of eligible material from safeguards.” This very much conflicts with the advice you have been given that “exceptions are not automatic” by the IAEA.

      Incidentally, para 37 must have had widespread use historically. The pre-SA INFCIRC/26 had a similar clause, but with a 200g limit for Pu/HEU. This was increased to 1kg in INFCIRC/66. The negotiating record shows that the reason for this increase was that experience showed that 200g was too low to cover all scientific purposes – that there was such experience implies the exemption was pretty widely used. Increasing it to 1 kg “was not judged to be significant in terms of safeguards”. It is certainly a different world now, but trying to retro-apply this new view to states that have not made a fresh agreement, eg an AP, is problematic.

    • rwendland (History)

      mark, it looks like my claim above about Canadian use of para 37 for medical isotopes source material is probably wrong. It looks like I muddled up the CSA with a confidentiality article in the Convention for the Safety of Spent Fuel Management when I was reading some docs! Sorry.

      That said, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does have a detailed form to request a para 37 exemption, and detailed “Instructions for Completing a Request for Exemption” in its manual, which does rather suggest Canada does use para 37 exemptions for something:

      If I were able to ask the IAEA a question on this topic, I’d like to find out how many states have ever requested a para 37 exemption. Ideally the all-time total, and counts per decade (or even year) of states using it, and number of individual requests, so we could assess if use of para 37 is declining or not. Ideally the names of the states as well, but I believe that is confidential.

    • mark (History)


      Thanks. There is enough in your cumulative comments to inspire a blog post from me on Infcirc/153 Article 37. If I get anywhere, it should get to all the questions you have raised over the last couple of days. I’m running around Berlin. Give me about a week and I’ll see what I come up with.

    • kme (History)

      If rwendland’s view is correct, then this might explain why Brazil has been reluctant to sign the AP – don’t they make use of safeguards exemptions for the material fuelling their submarine reactors?

    • rwendland (History)

      kme, non-explosive military use, such as submarine reactors, comes under para 14 of the CSA. para 37 exemptions will not cover enough material to run a reactor, so would be useless for this purpose. para 14 explicitly states that the IAEA will be informed about such uses, so is unsuited to a bit of confidential R&D as para 37 facilitates.

      I’ve not noticed that the AP puts additional constraints of para 14, but that is not something I’ve looked out for.

      I think Depeleted Uranium used in artillery rounds etc would also be handled under para 14, probably the largest amount of material handled by para 14.

      An interesting case would be land-based military power reactors such as the U.S. had from 1954 to 1977. I presume the fuel for these would go through para 14, so would not require the application of IAEA safeguards to it. This would be a possible avenue for secretive lab-scale explosive R&D, though reprocessing plants are not permitted to handle para 14 spent fuel, it has to go back under safeguards first. I don’t know if any NPT state other than the U.S. had a land military power reactor, though others did have marine reactors under test on land.

  22. Anon (History)

    As Denis pointed out — Marj as Sultan was captured by the rebels in Nov.2012.

    The rebels, to my knowledge, are not on the side of Iran.

    If anyone is trying to find where the NATURAL U metal went they should check maybe Israel or Western supporters of the rebels.

    But really, natural U metal is not a huge concern for me. I worry about our insecure HEU abroad measuring in the 1000’s of kg.

    BTW, from the Syrian CSA:

    A r t i c l e 32

    Safeguards under this Agreement shall not apply to material in mining or ore processing activities.

    A r t i c 1 e 33

    (a) When any material containing uranium or thorium which has not reached the stage of the
    nuclear fuel cycle described in paragraph (c) is directly or indirectly exported to a nonnuclear-weapon State, Syria shall inform the Agency of its quantity, composition and
    destination, unless the material is exported for specifically non-nuclear purposes;


    But, yes, if/when anyone actually knows where the NATURAL U went they should let us know. Until then it is speculation and allegation for it could be in Israel. For instance.

    • mark (History)

      Article 32 and 33 of the safeguards agreement are irrelevant for the purposes of the discussion of the blog post. Natural uranium is source material. Read what the safeguards agreement says about that. Also read the link in the blog post on the rebel’s prisoner exchange with Iran. The rebels don’t want peace with Iran? If I was fighting Assad, I would want peace with Iran.

    • Anon (History)

      Here is what I found:

      “nuclear material means any source or any special fissionable material as defined in
      Article XX of the Statute. The term source material shall not be interpreted as applying to ore
      or ore residue. Any determination by the Board under Article XX of the Statute after the entry
      into force of this Agreement which adds to the materials considered to be source material or
      special fissionable material shall have effect under this Agreement only upon acceptance by


      Regarding the prisoner exchange: not sure what speculation you are now implying?

      Is it that the rebels gave Iran nat U to get prisoners? Sure that is a ISIS-worthy SPECULATIVE POSSIBILITY — nothing in the linked article refers to Uranium.

      Since the rebels are being helped by West I think the West would insist that they not get into Uranium deals with Iran.

      My speculation is much better than yours.

    • mark (History)


      The passage you quote on source material is a non sequitur. There is a definition of source material and you disingenuously cited it, wasting my time to correct your deliberate error of omission. In the same paragraph, right at the top of it, as you must have read, the definition also says:

      “uranium containing the mixture of isotopes occurring in nature”

      That covers natural uranium metal, any processed natural uranium in fact. So why are you raising this? You’ve read the blog post. It never mentions ores, unprocessed material, or anything else which would extend the definition of source material and therefore under the definition require Syria’s approval.

  23. mark (History)


    I have deleted several comments from this thread that are not pertinent to the subject of this blog post which is as the title makes clear, allegations that there is undeclared natural uranium at large in Syria.

    This post is not about David Albright’s credentials or his reputation. If readers want to discuss that subject, they should do it elsewhere–not on this blog post.

    More generally but in the same vein, there will be no heckling in any comments I approve concerning anything I post from now on.

    I will also take the liberty to edit or not post remarks which reiterate errors made in previous comments especially in cases where they have been subsequently corrected for the record.

  24. Denis (History)

    Mark, thanks for your efforts to keep this thread on target.

    However, don’t you feel that the validity of your sources is an issue here? Any valid, scholarly discussion must surely include an analysis of the validity of the sources of all asserted facts. It’s the only way to deal with the “garbage in – garbage out” reality. If you are going to cite Albright’s speculations as the basis for your own speculations, then the validity of Albright’s speculations is of paramount importance. If Albright has an agenda, then that is relevant, too. I believe this is all a part of what comes with using Albright as a source.

    Likewise, your citing as a source for the rumor that the U was actually north of Damascus must raise some eyebrows among people familiar with this “organization.” It is the website of the Islamophobic, Zionist group Clarion Fund. According to Wikipedia, Clarion Fund is connected to the ultra-orthodox cult, Aish Hatorah. So I think “garbage in – garbage out” really becomes an important issue in trying assess the validity of the facts you cite to support your speculation about Marj as Sultan.

    • mark (History)


      The blog post was not based on speculation from Albright. The IAEA has looked intensively at the issue of possible nuclear fuel processing in Syria and they have found things that Syria at first did not admit. They are also in part for that reason examining any evidence for the presence of nuclear fuel for a DPRK-design reactor. The IAEA isn’t looking because Albright told them to do that. If you look carefully at the post there is nothing in what I wrote which directly or indirectly endorses anything that Albright has written, likewise nothing I wrote endorsing anything that was aired by blog. To the contrary, if your are not disingenuous you will appreciate that in fact I requested from the Clarion Fund information to confirm or corroborate what they had claimed and that they were not able to oblige. That, too, is in the post. So pul-eez differentiate between information and assertions which are cited as the record of what is current discourse, and what an author himself asserts.

      If you have an axe to grind about Albright and if you want to grind it, do it somewhere else.

  25. mark (History)

    The Syria uranium issue is now in the hands of the U.S. Congress:

  26. Andrea Stricker (History)

    ISIS cites in its February 2011 Marj al Sultan report the Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s report about the site, which cites Western intelligence, and also the IAEA, which gathered evidence from member states about three additional sites of concern. We have also cross-checked this information with our own sources. There is no conspiracy here.

    I don’t know if some folks are aware, but George W. Bush is no longer president, so who exactly is going to launch a war against Syria over these alleged sites? As we have stated elsewhere, ISIS will continue its mission to bring to the public imagery of nuclear sites of concern. Alluding that we support military interventions to stop proliferation is nonsense.

    Here is the Feb. 2011 ISIS report:

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