Jeffrey LewisSyrian Plutonium?

Jim Hoagland claims a “senior official” says the Israelis struck a “facility … to produce plutonium”:

But highly classified U.S. intelligence reports say that the Israelis destroyed a nuclear-related facility and caused North Korean casualties at the site, which may have been intended to produce plutonium, according to a senior official with access to those reports. The Israelis have provided the United States with photographs, physical material and soil samples from the site — taken both before and after the raid — according to two independent sources.

A “facility … to produce plutonium” is better known as a “nuclear reactor.”

I sense science illiteracy. DOE has a nice primer on plutonium and Glenn Seaborg.

On a related note, David Ignatius claims the target was a cache of nuclear material — which, if from North Korea, would imply plutonium — not a facility.


  1. Georg Schoefbaenker (History)

    Haaretz made somth more about this nonsense:

    Beside the claim that Several N. Korean scientists have been hurt in the IAF strike in Syria it talks about:

    “the site of the attack was a plutonium enrichment facility for the Syrian nuclear program.”

    1) There is no Syrian nuclear program

    2) A thing like an plutonium enrichment facility simply does not exist.

  2. spacemanafrica

    Syria does have a nuclear program though it is quite small and under-developed and probably not worthy of being called a “program.”

    While there is no such thing as plutonium enrichment per se, I can see how a site that seperates plutonium out of spent fuel could be classed as such by an unscientific, spoon-fed press.

    The facility that was attacked looks to have processing capabilities and underground storage. Make of that what you will, something is still missing from this story.

  3. rt (History)

    <i>> A “facility … to produce
    > plutonium” is better known
    > as a “nuclear reactor.”</i>

    I am still amazed that a paper box filled with water above a Bunsen burner doesn`t burn. So I figured I better do an extra rigorous triple google for plutonium + cyclotron before saying anything to the blogspheres one and only nukemaster in chief.

    But still, the “may have been intended” should tell the reader something. Perhaps it means something along the lines of: “Jim Hoagland may have intended to write a convincing article…”

    If you give a professional analyst a photo of a building and he cant come up with ten things for which that building may at one point have been intended by someone…. then you might as well rip up the employment contract on the spot.

    Anyway, forget the plutonium, how many ways are there to screw up reporting on whether soil samples were taken?

    Getting close enough to a nuclear installation to take samples can`t be easy. Then again, neither is bombing something under modern Russian air defense stuff.

    Bottom line: this isn`t secrecy + speculation + illiteracy = rumors anymore. Its either a lie or a really big surprise. A professional lier should know that a time when neither Israel, nor the US nor Syria confirms or denies anything specific is ideal to create a rumor for everyone who assumes the worst.

    My money is still on this being similar to north Korean enrichment, Cuban bioweapons and the annual Saddam Osama BBQ story.

  4. Stephen Young (History)

    Admittedly wild speculation on my part, but if you combine Hoagland and Ignatius, is it impossible to believe the Syrians were separating spent fuel to “produce” plutonium? Perhaps at merely a Seaborg-scale facility?

    The theory has many drawbacks, including the need for remote handling of spent fuel, but it seems possible in theory.

  5. John (History)


    If Israel did indeed bomb a plutonium shipment or something else containing nuclear material, wouldn’t the scattered residue be detectable by environmental sampling onsite? Is there any chance that someone can get a team with radiation detectors to Deir az Zor Syria to do environmental sampling at the attack site so that we can put this nonsense to rest? I suspect you could get Syrian government cooperation for this project without an inordinate amount of difficulty.

  6. Alex W. (History)

    I guess, if one were being really generous, one could instead think they are talking about plutonium re-processing facilities (stripping out the plutonium from the other fission products, a chemical process). And I guess would could imagine that “plutonium enrichment” could be an isotopic separation process to remove Pu-240 contamination from the Pu-239 but to my knowledge this has never been pursued, and if one had that sort of technology it would be easier to enrich uranium instead.

    But the lack of clarity means that these would be just hopeful and very sympathetic guesses as to what they are talking about, as if it were something very straightforward…

  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I should, by the way, have been as clear in the post as I was in frustrated e-mails to colleagues that the magic word that caught my attention was “produce.”

    He didn’t say “separate,” “isolate” or “recover.” After all, the NORKS could have — as you all suggest — sent the spent fuel AND a reprocessing facility, but that fairly well boggles the mind.

  8. bob massman (History)

    “But highly classified U.S. intelligence…”

    Apparently not.

  9. Georg Schoefbaenker (History)


    1) If the IAF raid really destroyed spent fuel rods from the NORKS there will be significant isotope samples we will read about sooner or later.

    2) The mere idea of exporting some last few kg of PU-239 (which after dismantling of Yonbyong facility might be a strategic reserve for the NORKS) PLUS exporting a secrect PU reprocessing plant is a good script for the next James Bond movie, but not for the reality in Syria.

  10. CKR (History)

    And how about those Highly Classified Reports?

  11. James (History)

    Foolish Americans! You cannot hurt plutonium!

    Seriously, plutonium is an element. You can bury it and you can scatter it, but you cannot destroy it up in an air raid. It seems to me that the esoteric nuclear sensing techology that is supposed to be able to detect plutonium inside a sealed metal box, inside a container, on a truck passing under a highway overpass couldn’t possibly miss the detritus of a nuclear facility blown sky-high in Asia Minor.

    John has the right of it and there’s no need to even go to Syria. All this fussing about alleged “soil samples” is bogus. The answer is blowing in the wind, my friend. Hear the silence? That’s the sound of Turkish scientists not detecting any fallout from the alleged destruction of an alleged nuclear site.

    If the site was under construction and had no nuclear materials present, why the excited reports of soil samples in the first place? And none of this explains why Israel and the US didn’t simply go public. Syria can and has knuckled under to world opinion in the past and their economy is much more vulnerable to sanctions than Iran.

    So I am mildly astonished at the remarkable and continued propaganda success of the Bolton Cabal. Without even the teensiest shred of hard evidence or remotest hint from an actual government spokeman on the record, they have got the global press internalizing the theory that Syria has violated the NPT.

    If they got evidence, let’s see it. Otherwise I believe nothing. I remember 2003, even if the NY Times does not.

  12. BJR

    More from the NYT, sigh. “…Syrian officials vigorously denied the intelligence and said that what the Israelis hit was a storage depot for strategic missiles.”

  13. reader

    Upon further reading, the North Korea casualties were intended to produce the plutonium.

  14. WatchfulBabbler (History)

    Although I still find it hard to believe that Syria (which has never pursued nucs) and DPRK (which has never exported nucs) could engage in so risky a maneuver, I suppose anything is possible. But obviously the evidence is at best uncertain, given this Administration’s evident reluctance to green-light the Israeli strike.

    One question for the experts: Syria has been experimenting with TBP/kerosene to purify phosphoric acid at the Homs superphosphate extraction plant. Could this reasonably trigger concerns that Syria was attempting to develop PUREX expertise “under the table,” so to speak?

  15. abcd (History)

    I really can’t imagine the NORKs transporting ANY plutonium whatsoever ahead of the upcoming declaration. Granted, I am asuming a lot on Pyonyang’s behalf, but it would be the ultimate giveaway if what they declare is drastically at odds with the US intel community’s estimates.

    This still, of course, gets us nowhere closer to answering Sept. 6’s lingering questions.

  16. John (History)

    James suggests that onsite environmental sampling is unnecessary to determine whether NORK plutonium from a shipment to Syria was scattered by an Israeli bombing run, since some of this material may have been broken up enough to make aerosols or particulates, and thereby be detectable outside of Syria. As I am not a nuclear expert I can’t really evaluate this idea but it is counterintuitive to me. As I understand it plutonium-239 is not easily detectable per se, as it is an alpha emitter, and alpha radiation has a half-thickness in air of less than an inch. Therefore plutonium is usually detected by detecting the Americium-241 usually present as a trace contaminant resulting from the processes used to produce Pu-239 from U-238, and subsequently chemically separate it from the U-238 and other nuclides. Trace amounts of Am-241 are easily detectable using scintillation counters due to the fact that Am-241 emits 60 keV gamma rays, but does NORK plutonium contain enough Am-241 so that the negligible amount expected to be aerosolized by a bombing run is detectable after diffusion and air dilution with either a satellite, or, more unlikely, a ground-based facility in a neighboring country? Is the 60 keV activity in this scenario really expected to exceed background? Remember that this was not a fissle device where plutonium was imploded in an attempt to achieve a nuclear yield, widely scattering the material. At best an Israeli bomb detonating next to a shipping container would be expected to break the enclosed plutonium into mostly macroscopic-sized chunks which shouldn’t migrate too far from the bombing site. Some aerosol should be produced, of course, but the question is under what conditions would it be detectable. This is definitely more in the realm of Jeffrey’s expertise than James’ or mine. What about it Jeffrey? With your knowledge of NORK plutonium do you think this issue could be resolved with onsite environmental sampling? What about remote sampling as suggested by James? How close in time an space to an event like this bombing run do you need to be to detect plutonium?

  17. Frank (History)

    If North Korea is buckling under pressure, but wanting to maintain their nuclear capability, why not loan out their assets somewhere that they can call upon in the future?

  18. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Assuming that North Korea wanted to preserve a reconstitution capability, Syria is the last place I’d put it.

    The capabilities that they would preserve really can’t be moved — i.e. the five plutonium related facilities — or would be missed — like plutonium and what they acquired from the Khan network.

    The remaining things could just as easily — perhaps more easily — be hidden in North Korea.

  19. China Hand (History)

    To me, the interesting element of the story is that the U.S. has no independent intelligence on the purported facility. In the versions I’ve read, it was the Israelis who prepared the dossier, which was stovepiped to the White House. But no cherry-picked reports from the Office of Special Plans, no heavily edited NIEs from our own spooks, and no willfully prevaricating presentations about gliders that could travel 5000 miles to spew bioweapons or hydrogen generators for artillery balloons that could be spun as bioweapons labs. It wouldn’t be hard for the United States to invest its credibility in an accusation of nuclear proliferation—if it wanted to. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a failure of will. The foreign policy apparatus isn’t interested in helping gin up the Syrian threat. It would be a sad day for the neocons if their grip on the executive branch is so weak that causus belli had to be outsourced overseas.

  20. thermopile (History)

    @ John — nah, Pu is pretty easy to detect on its own. Decay of Pu-239 produces a 414 keV gamma ray, which is readily detectable and identifiable by any spectroscopic system. It also produces neutrons through spontaneous fission, which are readily detectable above background levels. Lastly, it’s not so much that the plutonium itself becomes an aerosol; it’s more that some of the fission products of Pu-239, notably Xe-135, are gaseous. Detecting a high concentration of Xe-135 in the atmosphere was one of the ways we confirmed the NORKS actually detonated a nuclear weapon.

    All of the above information is readily available in any Chart of the Nuclides.

  21. Ward (History)

    China Hand is exactly right. Who here believes the Bush administration has suddenly developed caution in evaluating intelligence that aligns with some point of view it likes? Hands?