Jeffrey LewisACW Readers Rock the Box

If you aren’t reading the comments on my last few Syria posts, you are missing some great contributions by readers including:

  • John Hogan has used satellite images to pin down the construction date of the “Box-on-the-Euphrates” to between 26 May 2001 and 8 September 2002 (a 67-week interval).
  • Andrew Foland, MTC and Anon all found additional pictures of the area that suggest a ground truth image of the site wouldn’t be too difficult to acquire. (The German transliteration, Halabiye, seems to produce the best images.) MTC, using his pretty amazing language skills, found a picture from a Japanese tourist (duh!) that, had the tourist turned 90 degrees, might have looked right up the Wadi-with-the-Box.
  • Yale Simkin estimated the height of the Box-on-the-Euphrates at 24 meters, while conversing with Allen Thomson on the capacity of the pump station.

There are other solid contributions — these just struck my fancy. The debates are as technical, funny and polite as any in Washington, if not more so. I am truly honored (and a little terrified) to have such an amazing readership.

Thanks, folks.


  1. anon

    i think, SDR asked the most important question: is a wadi suitable for a reactor or better for something else?

    on a related matter, looking at other tourist’s pictures – it seems to me, we need a new alliance between arms control and archeological wonks. Someone should solicit for help on their blogs to find a picture with the small pumping box

  2. yale (History)

    Revenge Of The Nerds

    ACW is a chunky blend of Policy Wonks and Sliderule Geeks – people more likely to date a picture of Jessica Alba, than the real thing.

    If I can get geeky for a second – something I wanted to clarify back in that thread – the water flow discussed was a hypothetical discussion of a 50mw reactor cooling water just 1 degree C.

    In the real universe, the (maybe, possibly) reactor-in-the-box might be only 25mw (like Yongbyon). And the water would likely discharge with a 10 degree C. rise.

    If so, the pumping volume would be a quite large, but not insane, 830 liters per second (or 220 gallons per second).

    And, the more I think about it, I think a cooling tower will be used in conjunction with the partially covered, upper pump house, just off to the southwest of the Box.

    That whole triangular region making up the south of the site looks perfect for a tower.

    Sorry to interject this off-topic stuff, but saves making two posts, and I’m lazy…

    Yale Simkin

  3. Richard F.

    The only limitation for the water flow is the Euphrate which carries about 800,000 l/s on average. So using a permille (800 l/s with 10C or 400 l/s with 20 C) should be fine. A full blown light water reactor however cannot be used if you don’t wanna boil fish…

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Good to hear from you again, Richard.

    Your contributions are always appreciated.

  5. MTC (History)

    As regards the “right across the Euphrates from the Box” image of Halibiyya by “boukein110”—the photo was taken not in September 2006 but sometime in between 15 Feb 2007 and 18 Feb 2007—with the 15th as the likeliest date.

    I had misinterpreted the “Registered: September 2, 2006” label for the upload date of the image. September 2, 2006 was the date “boukein110” joined MSN Japan’s “Minna no Kaigai Ryokoki” travel photos sharing service.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Can you tell anything about the date, time or location of this picture?

    There just aren’t too many places where the road is adjacent to the river with a larger green field across from it.

    Drop me a line if you want to talk about this: armscontrolwonk [at]

    I can’t help but wonder if they are driving North, away from Halabiyya.

  7. yale (History)

    Here is the translated itinerary page:

    Roughly Translated

  8. mike (History)

    I’m curious. Does anyone know why no commercial satellite imagery has turned up from the days immediately after the Israeli airstrike? Say a week to ten days afterward, which would presumably show the extend of the destruction and perhaps something of what was inside the box.

  9. blowback (History)

    mike – because someone had to order it. Digitalglobe will sell you images others have already ordered or take images specifically for you but they don’t appear to have stock images (except of cities). The more important question is who ordered so many images of the “reactor” during August of this year. Prior to August 5th, 2007 there were no images of the site on Digitalglobe. During August, 2007, five sets of images were taken and then the one that appears in the ISIS document showing the “cover up” taken at the end of October.

    Was someone preparing a legend for the raid into Syria?!

  10. blowback (History)

    It all comes back to the satellite imagery from August, without it there is no story, no before shots. Either that imagery was ordered as part of a disinformation exercise to persuade the World that Syria has a nuclear program or it could be to cover up the fact that Israel has no independent satellite imagery capability anymore. A few months ago Israel launched Ofeq-7 which replaced Ofeq-5 which was coming to the end of its operational life. Although it is possible for outside parties to check that Ofeq-7 went correctly into orbit, the only ones who would know that it was correctly sending back images are the Israelis.

    If Ofeq-7 is not working then for the next year or so Israel will be relying on Americans imagery. If the Israelis use American imagery to attack Iran, then Iran can claim that America is involved in the attack and so is a legitimate target for retaliation. The US would want Israel to provide a story to cover any attack on Iran. What better way than to carry out an attack apparently based on up-to-date satellite imagery. The reason we wont see any recent Israeli imagery is that they have none of their own and if they present US or commercial imagery as evidence, people might ask the wrong questions and draw the correct conclusion. That strikes me as a good enough reason to carry out such a risky raid.

    I know this is a longshot but no more so than the “reactor” story and if anyone can produce recent Ofeq-7 imagery it falls apart as an explanation.

  11. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Let’s assume the ISIS pump station is really a pump and it works, or at least worked before the strike. Where is the pipe that returned the hot water to the river?

    The returned water shouldn’t be allowed to mix with the intake water. They should be dumped either downstream or near the other bank.

    Anybody seen such a return pipe? If it doesn’t exist where did they dump the hot water, in the wheat fields?

  12. Yale Simkin (History)

    There is not the slightest reason that the intake pipe and outflow pipe are not essentially side-by-side.

    The intake pipe is on the upstream side (north) and pulls in cool river water and the outflow pipe on the downstream side (south) discharges warm water.

    There would be no interference with each other.

    If it were a cooling pond, then the plumbing would be different.

    Remember, if this is a small production reactor it is less than 30 megawatts. A big thermal power station may be discharging 2,000 to 10,000 megawatts and is much more elabrate in its requirements.

  13. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Yale, what you say is correct in principle but in practice things may be more complicated. You think the velocity of river water will keep the outlet and intake flows from mixing. This may be ok at high velocities but towards a river bank the water velocity tends to zero. There is something I can’t disclose without permission but in our case the flows would have certainly got mixed.

    The reactor hypothesis can be saved if:

    * The Syrians were going to build a cooling tower but didn’t get the time

    * The engineers didn’t mind losing some of the cooling system efficiency because the pump was super strong, much more than needed to cool the reactor. Maybe they thought a double pipe is a sure sign of a cooling system and tried to hide it

    * The cement/sand silos were actually cooling towers (for a very small reactor)

    * The pipe was alternately used to fill a large tank inside the Big Box and drain the hot water

    * The engineers were inexperienced

    The last explanation is not as silly as it seems. Something about the way this thing worked suggests, at least to me, the engineers didn’t know what they were doing. Remember, they tell us the project was so secret it didn’t get anti-aircraft defense so it’s plausible they didn’t get good engineers either.

    I think the Big Box was not a decoy, mainly because of the sister site. For many reasons the reactor hypothesis is not very satisfactory either. I tend to think it was a chemical Scud workshop with a large water source to use in case of accidents.

  14. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Sorry, English is not my native laguage. On the second point it should be:

    “Maybe they thought a double pipe is a sure sign of a cooling system and tried to avoid it”

  15. Yale Simkin (History)


    I think it should not be implied that the inlet and outlet pipes from a pumping station directly exit the building and lie side-by-side at the water’s edge.

    In practice, they would both diverge any arbitrary distance and also terminate further into the deeper part of the river or specialized penned areas.

    As to your “The Syrians were going to build a cooling tower but didn’t get the time” ….

    I did point that out above:

    And, the more I think about it, I think a cooling tower will be used in conjunction with the partially covered, upper pump house, just off to the southwest of the Box. That whole triangular region making up the south of the site looks perfect for a tower.

    I suspect that the Syrians would create at least a token steam-driven electrical generator (like the NKs), which would arouse the IAEA into a paroxysm of ecstasy, knowing that Better Living Through The Magic Of Nuclear Energy has triumphed again.

    A cooling tower is a good match, but is not really necessary.