So, the early reports on this Israeli airstrike in Syria emphasized the prospect that Syria was extracting uranium from phosphates:
The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources, said the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility that was labeled an agricultural research center on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. Israel has kept a close eye on the facility, believing that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.
I mentioned earlier this week that, as a justification for an airstrike, this is ludicrous. Phosphate extraction is just another (uneconomical) form of uranium mining and milling. The resulting uranium would still need to be enriched, using a separation method such as gaseous diffusion or strong rotation. Doing so would require a facility such as the centrifuge plant that Iran is constructing near Natanz. That is, and always has been, the bottleneck that we worry about from a proliferation perspective. Otherwise countries like Kazakhstan, Niger, Naminbia and Uzbekistan would be major nuclear proliferation concerns.
Indeed, Brett Stephens in the Wall Street Journal beats me to the punch, with a pithy dismissal of the suggestion:
There has been some speculation regarding a Syrian plant in the city of Homs, built 20 years ago to extract uranium from phosphate (of which Syria has an ample supply). Yet Homs is 200 miles west of Dayr az Zawr, the city on the Euphrates reportedly closest to the site of the attack. More to the point, uranium extraction from phosphates is a commonplace activity (without it, phosphate is hazardous as fertilizer) and there is a vast gulf separating this kind of extraction from the enrichment process needed to turn uranium into something genuinely threatening.
Absent an enrichment facility, Syria’s uranium mining capabilities pose little proliferation risk. There is no point in bombing such a facility, unless Syria also has an enrichment facility. In that case, one would bomb that building (as well as any mining and milling operations, I suppose, for good measure).
Uranium Extraction from Phosphates
Still, it is an interesting little technology.
Syria has expressed interest in extracting uranium from phosphates, both as an environmental measure and as part of a stated ambition to acquire much of the nuclear fuel cycle. Syria requested, and received, technical cooperation with the IAEA in 1986-1992 and 1992-1997. (You can look up the projects in the IAEA database by clicking here, then selecting “Syrian Arab Republic” and “completed projects”). The IAEA states:
Through this project, the Agency provided the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS) with a micro-plant facility, spare parts and chemicals to enable yellow cake uranium to be recovered on an experimental basis from the phosphoric acid produced at Homs plant. This was to be the first step in the nuclear power programme cycle; subsequent steps would include a pilot plant, an industrial scale plant and then possibly operations such as refining, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication.
Obviously, if Syria were to get into the conversion and enrichment business, I’d be a little more worked up.
Although the IAEA doesn’t suggest the size of the micro plant, the fact that the extraction occurs in a laboratory environment would suggest the scale of the facility was measured in grams or kilograms, not tons.
Syria has continued this research, as suggested by an article in the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry entitled “Recovery of uranium from phosphate by carbonate solutions,” by H. Shlewit and M. Alibrahim from the Department of Chemistry at the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.
But, as far as I can tell, however, Syria hasn’t moved beyond the “micro plant” to the pilot plant stage.
What if Syria Did Build A Pilot Plant?
I should note that the phosphorous extraction line has been used by neo-cons like Ken Timmerman, who argue that Syria is maintaining a clandestine nuclear weapons program:
[WMD facilities include] include … a superphosphates complex in the desert near Palmyra, where Iraqi technicians reportedly have transferred technology Iraq used with success to extract uranium from raw phosphates ore.
As I say, this is pretty harmless absent an enrichment program.
Although Timmerman used the Iraq case to suggest the Syrians might be making real progress, the actual history of the Iraqi effort to extract uranium from phosphates is much more mixed.
The UNSCOM reports on Iraq’s pre-1991 Gulf War WMD programs suggest that Iraq had trouble extracting uranium from phosphates, although it certainly produced enough to support a modest bomb program:
The phosphate rock deposits of western Iraq contain uranium in the range of 50-80 ppm. A large deposit at Akashat is mined to supply a phosphate fertiliser plant at Al Qaim, some 150 km distant. During the period 1982 to 1984 a plant (Unit 340) for the extraction of uranium from the process phosphoric acid was constructed and commissioned.
Operating at design capacity the plant should have produced 103 tonnes of uranium per year — equivalent to 146 tons of yellowcake — assuming 317 operating-days and processing 3,600 m3 per day of phosphoric acid containing 75 ppm uranium at a recovery efficiency of 93%. Over its six years of declared operation the plant should have produced about 600 tonnes of uranium contained in nearly 900 tonnes of yellowcake. However, Iraq declared a production of only 109 tonnes of uranium in 168 tonnes of yellowcake, i.e., less than 20% of the design capacity of the plant.
Brazil, by the way, plans a similar facility near Itataia, which the OECD reports will produce 680 metric tons of uranium per year.