Jeffrey LewisMore Syria Nonsense

ABC’s Martha Raddatz has some detail about the Syrian nuclear facility that suggests to me that she and her sources are confused about nuclear reactors:

But the hardest evidence of all was the photographs.

The official described the pictures as showing a big cylindrical structure, with very thick walls all well-reinforced. The photos show rebar hanging out of the cement used to reinforce the structure, which was still under construction.

There was also a secondary structure and a pump station, with trucks around it. But there was no fissionable material found because the facility was not yet operating.

The official said there was a larger structure just north of a small pump station; a nuclear reactor would need a constant source of water to keep it cool.

The official said the facility was a North Korean design in its construction, the technology present and the ability to put it all together.

It was North Korean “expertise,” said the official, meaning the Syrians must have had “human” help from North Korea.

A light water reactor designed by North Koreans could be constructed to specifically produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The problem here is that North Korea’s reactors are gas-cooled. You see, if there is a pump , the reactor can not be, as David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti reported, “modeled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons.” (A careful reader in the comments points out that the pump could be for a secondary cooling tower like the one at Yongbyon, a possibility that I neglected.)

So, one of the two stories is dead wrong. It either is either water-cooled or it resembles the reactor at Yongbyon, which is gas-cooled.

Now, in addition to light-water reactors, a heavy water reactor, like Iran is building at Arak, would have pumps. No one, however, seems to be suggesting an Iran-Syria link. I am not sure why — perhaps the pump drew H20 from the river.

So, basically, according to Raddatz — who generally seems like a pretty solid reporter — we’ve got a big cement ring in the ground and nearby pump station. (I am not even going to touch the claim that Mossad “managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee.”)

The hard evidence seems a little, well, soft to me. AP’s George Jahn, by the way, reports that the IAEA is now looking at commerical imagery
but hasn’t seen anything that screams nuclear reactor:

Two other diplomats said initial examination of the material found no evidence the target was a nuclear installation, but emphasized it was too early to draw definitive conclusions.

(Thanks to Pavel Podvig and SQ for pointing out the Raddatz story and the water pump detail.)


  1. Andy (History)

    It sounds like Israel essentially bombed a foundation. Why attack at this time instead of letting the Syrians sink more money into it? If the reactor story is true, Israel could have waited and bombed the facility when it had expensive and difficult-to-replace equipment in it.

    Perhaps they acted at this time for fear of the SA-22, a new a capable air defense system Syria began taking delivery of in August. Coincidence?

  2. yale (History)

    Having a pump house and water-cooling has nothing to do with whether the reactor is gas-gooled, liquid-metal cooled, whatever. The water is for a secondary cooling loop – either directly heat-exchanged with the primary (gas) loop, or as part of a cooling tower.

    The reference to light-water reactor is wrong, but that does not impact the possibilty that it is a cooling system for a graphite reactor.

    It is precisely via the steam-plumes from Yongbyon that we knew when they were running:

  3. yale (History)

    Here is the link to the ABC video segment

    From the virtual flythru that they do, it looks like the round structure may not be a containment, but the biological shield.

    Compare that to this diagram of a DPRK MAGNOX-style reactor:

    Yale Simkin

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    You are right about the possibility it was for a secondary cooling tower that might have been built at a later date. The tower at Yongbyon didn’t go up for years.

    Of course, that calls into question the positive identification.

    But the more I think about it, it is quite plausible that a detail like “secondary cooling tower” would get simplified into water-cooled.

  5. Pavel

    Even a gas-cooled reactor would need some water. However, it is not clear if the water pump would be one of defining features of the facility. Can anyone locate the water pump on Yongbyon satellite photos?

  6. James (History)

    Still not buying it. Lots of things start out as concrete rings and any military installation is going to need water. What exactly did Israel target, anyway? A concrete foundation itself? They risked F-15s and wasted tens of millions of dollars in ordnance to destroy…poured concrete? That’s not going to delay things very long.

    It seems a foolish risk to take when they could have simply cried “foul” to the IAEA and gotten the place put on a regular inspections list. With no information about the reactor and no other evidence of a bomb program, there is no casus belli. Frankly, the new explanation makes the Israelis look not only paranoid, but foolish, as well.

  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The fly through is much more explicit about some claims, e.g. the pump station is at the river, which answers the D2O question. I didn’t think about the secondary tower option since (1) they said “light water reactor” and (2) I conflated the pumping station with the cooling towers. But I think one could build them separately.

    So, yes, at some point they need water. I notice also this phrase in the ABC news article. “There was also a secondary structure and a pump station, with trucks around it.” Maybe the source meant a “secondary cooling tower” and an associated pump?

    I don’t see anything at Yongbyon that screams river intake, but I don’t put much stock in my photo-interpretation skills.

    By the way, just to be totally clear: I have no doubt that North Korea would sell anything to anyone. Moreover, Syria has openly expressed an interest in acquiring a larger research reactor. So, my skepticism is focused entirely on the fact that none of these stories make a bit of sense. But the idea that North Korea would sell, or that Syria would buy, a research reactor is very plausible.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Oh, and I agree with both James and Andy shaking their heads at hitting an empty concrete cylinder.

    Seems like a political, not a technical, decision. Someone wrote in the Nelson Report “Israel hit Syria because it could. The real target was Iran, which Israel can’t hit, not by itself.”

    Maybe, baby.

  9. Allen Thomson

    Just speculating about speculations, but if the modest-sized reactor was next to a largish river, why bother with a cooling tower at all? I.e., why not just dump the heat from the secondary cooling loop into the river? It’s not as if it was going to boil the Euphrates, is it?

  10. Sam Roggeveen (History)

    I can’t find the article online just now, but Middle East correspondent for The Australian newspaper, Martin Chulov, reported on 20 October (p.15) that “Officials familiar with nuclear science were convinced that the satellites had uncovered a very early phase in a process to create heavy water…”

  11. abcd (History)

    Could satellite imagery at this point conclusively determine whether this elusive facility was really a reactor? Moreover, how serious is this absent corresponding reports of a reprocessing facility?

    Just curious…

  12. Sparks (History)

    There are very few reasons to make a big concrete cylinder as described. Have you considered the reason they struck this “empty foundation when they did probably had to do with the pressing needs for intel on the AA system (which coincidently happens to be the same as the one Iran uses? And just what is it that has had Olmert running around like crazy? Jeffery: You are usually pretty levelheaded. Why are you discounting something so blatant? Remember “allsource”

  13. yale (History)

    I agree with A.T.

    I don’t think that (if this is a reactor) that Syria would likely use a cooling tower as part of the secondary water cooling loop.

    With extremely few exceptions, all current reactors of any size are water-cooled. The primary coolant loop – which directly cools the core, – whether a gas or liquid, is of no value if the heat from this primary loop can’t be dumped into the environment. Thats why all reactors use a secondary cooling loop of water (because it combines cheapness, simplicity, and water holds more heat than any liquid) to pipe the heat out of the reactor facility.
    (The term “secondary” does not imply a “backup” or “optional” cooling system. It is integral to normal reactor operation)

    How that secondary loop is cooled varies all over the map.

    Dimona, for example, in the desert, apparently uses a sealed secondary water loop with a forced air radiator system. This is similar to your car’s cooling system.

    Yongbyon seems uses the standard hybrid system which pumps the secondary water loop heat thru a radiator in a passive convection cooling tower coupled with a tertiary loop water spray or cascade. This is a fairly good water-saver and is the common technique at power reactors.

    If you are near a large water source, you can pump enough cooling water to directly chill the secondary loop without a cooling tower. (Or less likely, use an “open” secondary loop of pumped river or pond water)

    The MAGNOX image I posted before was too big to show the secondary loop. Here its re-sized:

    A Good Essay On the Subject From Global Security

    BTW – we should not infer that the ring is empty. It is just the described component of a system which may include the base pad and reactor support.

    Damaging these systems would be a severe and lasting setback, as would trashing the pumphouse and control buildings.

    I think Israel may be killing multiple birds with one stone – pre-empting Syria, warning Iran, and boosting the current governments poll numbers.

    Yale Simkin

  14. Miles Pomper (History)

    Interesting and insightful discussion all. My sense is that Yale hit the nail on the head with his last comment. In particular, I think this is about the perception that Olmert needed to make Israel’s deterrrent credible again after Lebanon—internally and externally. Remember this was a guy whose approval ratings were in the single digits before the raid. Would the Israeli military permit someone so feckless to be in charge as they head for a confrontation with Iran? I don’t think so. But he now may have bought himself some time.

  15. SQ

    I don’t see a domestic political angle at work, as Yale and Miles do. The unusual secrecy surrounding this incident in Israel is more consistent with Olmert’s attempts to simmer things down with Syria, to avoid sparking another conflict like that of summer 2006.

    The tension apparent in conducting a potentially provocative raid while trying to keep it hushed up suggests that there was some kind of urgency felt about the matter in Jerusalem. How well justified that sense of urgency was is a different question, and a hard one to answer based on how little we still know.

  16. yale (History)

    Whether the attack had politics as part of the equation, or just a welcome unexpected side-effect, the raid was a major positive for Olmert’s government, altho probably insufficient to derail the reactionary Likud party in the elections.

    As US News put it:

    September 22, 2007
    TEL AVIV—It’s too soon to tell whether Israel’s Air Force raid in Syria was a wise move from a security standpoint. One outcome, though, is clear already. The September 6 incursion has made Ehud Olmert a much more popular—or maybe less unpopular—prime minister. A poll last week in Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest newspaper, showed a 10-percentage-point jump, to 35 percent, in Olmert’s approval rating in the raid’s immediate aftermath. Israelis backed the air raid by nearly an 8-to-1 margin, even though its details are shrouded by extraordinary secrecy.
    Politically, “Operation Orchard,” the mission’s code name, was by far the most successful move Olmert has made in office. It also boosted the standing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, apparently at the expense of opposition Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

  17. Bill M

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

    Reuven Pedatzur, in an op-ed at Haaretz today (, explains what Israel is really concerned about vis-a-vis Syria without once mentioning the raid or this nuclear crap.

    Pedatzur makes clear that after the Lebanon War, the IDF fears that Syria may have finally hit upon a winning strategy for war: a war of a attrition using their very large conventional rocket corps combined with a defense based around infantry and anti-tank missiles that prevents a decisive Israeli thrust at Damascus to end the war.

    Pedatzur goes into great length detailing Syria’s conventional rocket capability. The “nuclear” distrction doesn’t come into it (that apparently is for foreign consumption). It is the conventional Syrian capabilities that worry Israel.

    So what was Israel attacking? Logic says it’s the thing Syria has been working on expanding for decades (conventional rockets) that Israel has recently discovered it is quite vulnerable to (in the Lebanon War).

    Simple as that.

  18. Michael Roston (History)

    Jeffrey –

    Seems like you are neglecting the ‘Curveball’ part of this story. See:

    <blockquote>Israeli officials believed that a target their forces bombed inside Syria last month was a nuclear facility, because they had detailed photographs taken by <bold>a possible spy</bold> inside the complex, ABC News has learned.

    The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to say anything about the Israeli raid on Syria, or to confirm what was hit. But ABC News has learned of the <bold>apparent mole and other dramatic and secret details</bold> about the events leading up to the airstrike, plus the evidence that supported it.

    A senior U.S. official told ABC News the Israelis first discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility early in the summer, and the Mossad – Israel’s intelligence agency – <bold>managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee.</bold>

    As a result, the Israelis obtained many detailed pictures of the facility from the ground.</blockquote>

    Then we get the jazz about the whole purported series of photos of the purported site and what they showed.

    “Dramatic details,” eh? About as dramatic as a rerun of Babylon 5.

    This kind of “either/or” reporting is just ridiculous. Either there was a spy on the ground, or there wasn’t!

    What it shows beyond doubt is that from the sky, they had no idea what they were looking at. They needed to have photos from someone who may have been an Israeli agent, or may have been a spy, or may have been a taxi driver like Curveball. Can’t you hear the inventers of this story scratching their heads after the Mazetti and Sanger strip in the Sunday funny papers and trying to figure out how they could make this sound any more convincing? “Ah hah! A spy! With a camera! That’s the ticket.”

  19. Robot Economist (History)

    Allen Thompson –

    I doubt the Syrians would have considered dumping the second coolant loop back into the river. Even a 2-3 degree difference in water temperature can have a huge impact on large tracts of river ecology. I doubt the SAR would want to hurt the freshwater fishermen who feed many Syrians on the interior.

    Most of the nuclear plants that dump the second loop allow the water to cool in a series of large pools before returning to the river.

  20. Neil Couch (History)

    There’s a good anaylsis by Stanley Kurtz of National Review on the various news articles about the Syrian raid. See the article at:

  21. b (History)

    WaPo has a new piece up that contradicts the ABC item

    /quote/The new report leaves many questions unanswered, such as what Syria intended to use the unfinished structures for and the exact role, if any, of North Korea in their construction. Also unclear is why Israel chose to use military force rather than diplomatic pressure against a facility that could not have produced significant nuclear material for years. The new details could fuel debate over whether Israel’s attack was warranted.

    Albright acknowledged the difficulties of proving what the site is, in part because the roof was put on at an early stage, blocking views of the foundation and obscuring any potential reactor components. In construction of other types of nuclear reactors, the roof is left off until the end so cranes can move heavy equipment inside.

    Some nuclear experts urged caution in interpreting the photos, noting that the type of reactor favored by North Korea has few distinguishing characteristics visible from the air. Unlike commercial nuclear power reactors, for example, a North Korea-style reactor lacks the distinctive, dome-shaped containment vessel that prevents the release of radiation in the event of a nuclear accident.

    “You can look at North Korea’s [reactor] buildings, and they look like nothing,” said John E. Pike, a nuclear expert and director of “They’re just metal-skinned industrial buildings.” The proximity of the building to a water source also is not significant by itself, Pike said./endquote/

    If there is a roof on top of the building, how can people see a “ring structur” which in itself doesn’t compare to NoKo technology.

    Also the major question to me: What would be fed into the supposed reactor.

    My assessment – a lot of bullshit – nothing nuke there.

  22. noname

    lat 35.708677°
    long 39.833983°

    is this it? 7mi north of Al Tibnah, landing strip 2mi north, another structure 3mi west?

  23. Allen Thomson

    Going on the WaPO story, I think the building described may be the one shown in Google Earth at 35.7079 N , 39.8331 E.


  24. Andy (History)

    ISIS obtained some high-resolution imagery of the possible target and did some analysis. Read the report here:

  25. yale (History)

    I think that “b” is de-emphasizing the thrust of the WaPo article

    A fuller reading mostly concurs with the ABC report:

    Independent experts have pinpointed what they believe to be the Euphrates River site in Syria that was bombed by Israel last month, and satellite imagery of the area shows buildings under construction roughly similar in design to a North Korean reactor capable of producing nuclear material for one bomb a year, the experts say.
    Photographs of the site taken before the secret Sept. 6 airstrike depict an isolated compound that includes a tall, boxy structure similar to the type of building used to house a gas-graphite reactor. They also show what could have been a pumping station used to supply cooling water for a reactor, say experts David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). … If the facility is confirmed as the site of the attack, the photos provide a potential explanation for Israel’s middle-of-the-night bombing raid. … Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said the size of the structures suggested that Syria might have been building a gas-graphite reactor of about 20 to 25 megawatts of heat, similar to the reactor North Korea built at Yongbyon.
    “I’m pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor,” Albright said in an interview. … Brannan, of ISIS, combed through a huge amount of satellite imagery to find a site along the Euphrates that matches a reactor’s specifications as well as descriptions of the attack site. The compound’s distance from populated areas was a key detail, since reactors are usually isolated from major urban populations. The site is also close to an irrigated area, which would explain statements by some officials privy to details of the attack that the facility was located near orchards. A small airstrip about two miles away could have been used to transport personnel to the site.

    Pike rightly points out that the enclosed buildings aren’t definitive for a reactor. However, it was pictures and reports PRIOR to enclosure that appear to be suggestive, particularly what I would think is the biological shield.

    Who knows what it really is (was)? The most sophisticated imagery and the detailed onsite intelligence (if it exists), will not be revealed.

    As to what is fed the reactor, Syria co-produces uranium from it phosphate industry (that is how the US fueled much of its weapons and power program).

  26. Allen Thomson

    Supposing for the moment that this thing really was intended to be a 25 MWt plutonium production reactor, I have a question for the assembled experts:

    How big a facility would be needed to extract plutonium from the fuel elements at that production rate? The classical nuclear powers have humungous plants for the purpose, but their production rates were much higher.

    Could Syria (or North Korea for that matter) manage with something more modest?

  27. User_Hostile (History)

    From phospate? So the tailings I saw in Mimbres, NM were derived from phosphate mining? Or was it plain old U oxide? Percentage wise, how much of the commercial and military U was mined via phosphates.

  28. joseph (History)

    Debka is saying that it was to be a dirty bomb producer, for what that’s worth. I can’t believe Syria actually thought they’d get away with building the thing.

  29. Allen Thomson

    Robot Economist said:

    > I doubt the Syrians would have considered dumping the second coolant loop back into the river. Even a 2-3 degree difference in water temperature can have a huge impact on large tracts of river ecology.

    I don’t see that there would be a problem like that, assuming the Syrians took a certain amount of care in how they pumped the cooling water back into the river.

    If I’ve done the arithmetic correctly, 25 MW is 6e6 cal/sec, which heats up 6 cubic meters of water by one degree C a second. But, googling around quickly, the flow in the Euphrates appears to be in the range of several hundreds of cubic meters per second.

    So, again assuming the above quick analysis is in the ballpark, it doesn’t look like a big problem unless the designers did something really stupid.

  30. yale (History)

    User_Hostile asks:

    “Percentage wise, how much of the commercial and military U was mined via phosphates”

    During the 1970’s US production of uranium from phosphate mining was roughly 1.8 thousand metric tons per year, equal to about half of current domestic uranium production from all sources in 2006.

    Allen T. asks:
    “How big a facility would be needed to extract plutonium from the fuel elements at that production rate? “

    N. Korea’s facility is less than 200 meters long and less than 30 meters wide. A quick and dirty plant could be much smaller.

    This is an image of the whole radio-chem plant at Yongbyon. The reprocessing line is just part of it.

    Yale Simkin

  31. John (History)


    What am I missing here? The ISIS paper by David Albright claims to show satellite imagery taken on 10 Aug 07 with three structures east of the Euphrates River, the most prominent of which appear to me to be in the vicinity of 35d42m28s(N), 39d49m59s(E). Google Earth recently updated this area with a tile from Digital Globe acquired three weeks later, on 28 Aug 07 (Cat ID 10100100071CCB01), which shows only the so-called reactor building without the “Pump Station” or the “Secondary Structure.” Was Syria in the process of DECONSTRUCTING this facility when Israel “bombed” it in October (if indeed this is even the correct site)????? What gives?


    You did a nice job of putting together your overlay for your candidate site 38 mi SE of Andy’s site. It matches The new January tile from DG put up by GE recently perfectly. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit the current notion of the site being right on the river, much less being on the wrong side of the river from the site Albright describes.


    I have read credible-seeming reports of Israeli F15i jets scattering drop tanks across half of the Syria-Turkey border recently and deploying munitions near Tall Al Abyad. Every time I read something about this story the locations and scenarios keep shifting. I still smell bulllshit here. I know that you are also having trouble figuring it out, but keep trying. If nothing else at least your readers seem to be compiling a lot of decent raw intelligence. Hopefully someone will figure this out eventually.

  32. b (History)

    Funny how Albright of CSIS speaks of the Yongbyon reactor as “Russian made”. He is an “expert” on the issue?

  33. AHM (History)

    B: He’s speaking of the Russian technique of putting together the reactor at the site rather than a Russian-design reactor (by “old Russian model” he means “model for constructing” not “reactor model.”

    John: Where did you find out that the second tile from Google Earth was taken in August 2007?

  34. abcd (History)


    The Google Earth image without the pump station and nearby secondary facility was taken by the SPOT Image Corporation in August 2006, according to the first NYT article referenced above.

  35. John (History)


    See abcd’s comment below yours. I made the apparently incorrect assumption that Google Earth layers tiles with the most recent layered over the older tiles so that as much of an image as possible is as current as possible. The most recent tile acquired by GE from Digital Globe which covers the site was photographed in August of 2007. Apparently this tile was overlaid by an older Spot Corp. tile to produce the image GE currently has of the site. GE really needs to address this issue. Since they have already purchased these tiles they need to give the user the capability to bring a specific tile to the foreground. That way we could compare images taken at different times for the same site. I am currently looking at sites other than DG to try to find images of the Syria site taken at different times. I have just found the main building minus the pump station and secondary building on a NASA site photo taken in 2006, and am going to work back further. The NASA site front end is found at
    I may actually break down and buy the tile from August 2007 from Digital Globe if it isn’t too expensive just to convince myself that all three structures were on the site just prior to the Israeli bombing. Will keep y’all informed if I think that I find anything interesting. Hopefully someone will catch any errors I make and we can keep this inquiry moving forward.

  36. Vasastan

    New to the site, so the answer to this may be obvious. If so, excuse me. Is it possible that the Israeli strike intended to target specific people as well as structures? If they knew when local or foreign scientists and technicians were on site, could the airstrike have been meant for them?

  37. Yossi, Jerusalem

    This is a kind of “conspiracy theory” about the Syrian site.

    Couldn’t a “large, round, reinforced concrete cylinder” be some kind of long range missile silo?

    Moving the Shihab (or the old Russian cruise missiles) missiles from Iran to Syria would significantly cut the distance to London and Paris. This would explain the hurry to build an anti-missile defence system in western Europe and Syria’s haste to conceal the evidence.
    Syria is probably caught between the bear hug of Iran and the need to maintain good relations with Europe. The US will probably want to hide it got scared by some regional power it is trying to intimidate and will seize on the Israeli tendency to see nuclear programs everywhere. I guess the Israeli experts saw much less ICBM sites than their US counterparts.

    By the way, if your missiles still require cryogenics you will probably need lots of cooling water.

    SANA and Asad tries hard not to lie and perhaps they are doing do minimally. And maybe the NK ship was really carrying cement after all…

  38. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Sorry for the many typos in my previous post.

    The “large, round, reinforced concrete cylinder” could of course be inside the big box.

    ISIS noted there was a brighter rectangle on the roof and thought it was the future basis for a superstructure similiar to the NK one.

    If you flow with the silo theory you could say it was two large doors that open and let the missile out.