Jeffrey LewisFirst Evidence BoE Was a Reactor

Robin Wright at the Washington Post and David Sanger at the New York Times are reporting that CIA Director Michael Hayden and other intelligence officials will brief the House and Senate Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees on the Box-on-the-Eurphrates.

The centerpiece of the briefing is a video [presentation showing two still photographs of] a reactor core inside similar to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.

Well, finally, some evidence.

  • David Sanger reports that it contains “what appears to be the construction of a reactor vessel inside the building that Israel later destroyed.”
  • Robin Wright reports that “shows that the Syrian reactor core’s design is the same as that of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, including a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for fuel rods.”

Above are two images of the top of the Yongbyon reactor core (both from the IAEA, the color one via ISIS). I can imagine that a [picture] showing that would cause some consternation. If the Administration makes the Syria video public, we can do a little comparison.

Assuming the provenance, interpretation and timing are all square, I would think the presumption now shifts to “it was a reactor” — which is not to say that hitting it was a sensible foreign policy decision or that the Six Party process should stall.

Martha Raddatz gets credit, in retrospect, for her story saying that Israel had photographs. I was skeptical and some of the details were certainly wrong in retrospect, but the main point seems more solid today.

I confess I am a little surprised. An agent inside with a video camera is a littler more 24 or Alias than typical clandestine operations. I am not sure how or why the Syrians let a video camera into the facility in the first place.


There are still tons of unanswered questions, but I suspect folks will ask those in the Congressional briefings:

  • Who took the [pictures], when and why? How did the Israelis get a copy?
  • Where are the fuel fabrication and reprocessing facilities? I would be surprised if Syria would be willing to depend on foreign fuel and, even more, on foreign reprocessing services.
  • Why weren’t Administration officials willing to call it a reactor, even off-the-record?

Update: As you can see from the changes to the post (clearly marked, of course), apparently what we have are two still photographs inside the BOE.


  1. SQ

    Perhaps we should wait to see the video. Government analysts have been known to misinterpret evidence before.

    I don’t always take such a Missourian attitude, but the track record on some of these allegations (think BDA) warrants the added scrutiny.

    Add to that the many problems of envisioning this wadi as the home of a Yongbyon clone. Jeff, do you think you could post an overhead of the wadi next to an overhead of Yongbyon? Not the reactor, the whole complex.

    If the Box o’ Death does turn out to be a gas-graphite reactor, in many ways it would be a greater mystery than if it were not. Like you say, where would the rest of the infrastructure have gone? Distributed across the whole country, maybe? It’s possible, but wouldn’t there be indications, once we knew what we were looking for?

    Thanks for posting the reactor core pics, but beware: at a glance, it looks like you have acquired a Syria image and put it up next to an NK image for comparison.

    In reading the video, our interpretation should turn on whether there really is a comparable set of structures. Too much attention is being paid to the mere presence of North Koreans in Syria, which is not news, on account of missile sales and support. Hersh’s article even featured an anonymous Syrian official acknowledging that North Koreans were building the structure, so this claim alone doesn’t add anything.

  2. Muskrat (History)

    OK, but if the video emerges in a few years and you can see the marionette strings, we’ll know it’s a “Team America” mashup some kid made for youtube.

  3. Rip (History)

    Come on Jeffery…..Who & When? What about protection of sources? Do you demand a credit roll at the end of the video?

    Why? Duh! It’s (98%) a fook’in nuke reactor amenable to producing weapons grade material in Syria with engineering and construction support by NK!!!!

    Good question about fabrication and reprocessing – but nobody in the public realm even noticed the BOE until it was destroyed. GEites! Get to work!

  4. SQ

    An added thought: as with the Laptop o’ Death, there is also the added question of the authenticity of the video. But for now, we’ll just have to wait and see what there is to see.

  5. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    At most sensitive facilities I have been to lately (last 5 years), visitors are given the once over to relieve them of any sort of recording device, including but not limited to cameras and audio recorders of any type, including ones built into cell phones, PDAs, laptops, watches, jewelry, eyeglasses, and on top of that, relieved of any sort of capability to bring in data storage media of any nature, including flash cards, USB drives, CDs, DVDs, etc. and subject to a through search before being admitted to the more sensitive parts of the premises.

    Can someone tell me if Syrians and North Koreans have similar procedures, and whether it is enforced with an iron fist (as some of my host do)?

    The better security people in the world have no illusions as to how small recording devices can be made (like small enough to be hidden inside the frame of common eyeglasses) and what needs to be done to stop them.

    Are the Syrians and NKs that inept?

  6. BJR
  7. Cernig (History)

    Like you, Jeffrey, I was convinced the strike had been on a CW/missile pairing operation.

    But all this is anonymously sourced.

    Wright’s piece said Congress was to be shown the video today. Does anyone know if any Congresscritter has confirmed that is happening?

    Regards, C

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Covert videocams:

    To me, the feat of getting an agent into the building in the first place is much more impressive than just sneaking in a camera. Major points to Mossad or whoever did it.

    Fuel: Would supply of fabricated elements from North Korea be out of the question?

    Plutonium extraction: I think we touched on this before, but how big a facility is actually necessary? IIRC, running flat out Yongbyon is thought to produce =< 10 kg (about a pint) of Pu239 a year. If you’re willing to take another year to process the used fuel element, how much plant is needed? Can scaled-up laboratory methods work?

  9. FSB

    Committee seems pretty pissed at timing:

    Say some details to be out from WH at 4.30pm

  10. Gabriel Red (History)

    Congress should wait to see the video, too. According to the Times, they will only see, “images from a video, believed to have been obtained through Israeli intelligence services.”

    But hey, Pete Hoekstra says it’s dangerous, so it must be. Trusssst him.

    Last guy was called Curveball, let’s call this one Slider.

  11. James (History)

    More questions:

    When was the video taken? The BoE was under construction for years and was clearly a long way from completion. Was the project active?

    How does one determine from pictures alone the difference between North Koreans and Chinese or South Koreans or, for that matter, Asiatic Russian citizens?

    Would it not have been much simpler to take the video to the IAEA before the bombing and use global pressure to get the site inspected instead taking a fundamentally illegal action, making vague and contradictory statements about it, and then releasing some evidence under a cloud of suspicion and bad feeling?

    Seriously…from the standpoint of advancing policy, why was it better to bomb the facility and allow Syria the dignity of razing it in a burst of outrage instead of putting them on the spot with probable cause for inspections?

    Finally: given that their sources and methods are now burned, what is the reason for not providing the source tape to the IAEA or other intelligence agencies for analysis? They are presuming a credibility that they no longer possess. That’s one of the costs of the fiasco in Iraq: they must reveal more of what they know because their assertions are no longer taken on faith.

  12. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Oh yeah, look at that:

    “There are still photographs of the facility as part of the video, but it’s a video presentation, like a Powerpoint presentation. It’s not a video of the facility,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

    Also, let the record reflect my position was that I didn’t know what the BOE was — a position that I note was the same as the dovish Bush Administration before they were shown the pictures we are reading about now.

    This doesn’t mean that the Syrian facility wasn’t a reactor. It means, based on the public evidence, we don’t know what whether it was a copy of Yongbyon or Bashar al-Assad’s naked swimming pool. The only way to know is to get inside.

    So, the real key is this supposed HUMINT obtained by Israel. As far as I can tell, the only indication of this is from Martha Raddatz at ABC who claimed Israel “managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee. As a result, the Israelis obtained many detailed pictures of the facility from the ground.”

    Frankly, I would have preferred IAEA inspectors to some disgruntled construction worker with a drinking problem.

  13. blowback (History)

    <i>why was it better to bomb the facility</i>

    To liquidate the evidence that it was not a reactor?

    Was the “video presentation” of still photos compared by Max Headroom?.

  14. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Seriously…from the standpoint of advancing policy, why was it better to bomb the facility and allow Syria the dignity of razing it in a burst of outrage instead of putting them on the spot with probable cause for inspections?

    The obvious speculation is that Israel thought, rightly or wrongly, that it couldn’t afford to wait for the otherwise much preferable diplomatic methods to work. And the only thing that I can think of that that would have caused that would be imminent fueling of the reactor.

  15. SQ


    There would be considerable risk in the clandestine export of fuel rods. It would cross an additional line, and would run a high chance of interception. The NKs have sometimes experienced problems in getting their products to the client. I can think of three instances in which deliveries were intercepted, one of them a delivery to Syria.

    Plus, where would the NKs make the fuel? If they started fabricating fuel at Yongbyon, it would not go unnoticed.

    The missing-facilities problem is more extensive than the lack of fuel cycle structures. It is a very bare and very small site. There’s a secondary building, the pump structure on the water, and the Box of Doom itself (now the Monopoly House). Among the missing items are a power plant (no overhead power lines as far as I see), a dormitory, security structures, and a paved road. And the Box was there for some years.

    Seriously, compare this place with even a quarter of the Yongbyon complex in Google Earth. They do not match well at all.


    Your questions are not too difficult. Israelis tend not to trust the UN or the international community to provide security for them, or even to have their best interests in mind.

    Still less are state relations in the Middle East governed by the concerns of observers about international law! As an old saying has it, There is no justice and no judge.

    And fairly or unfairly, not everyone sees the case of the IAEA and “international pressure” in Iran as a successful model for comparable problems.

  16. Alex (History)”>No video – just a “video presentation, like PowerPoint”.

  17. Jeremy (History)

    The Guardian reports that the video was taken of the outside of the facility:

    “The video, which is expected to be made public later, is a collection of material from various sources, in addition to Israeli intelligence. There is no tape from inside the alleged reactor, only two still photographs.”

  18. Yossi, Jerusalem

    If there was good evidence all along why the US IC and the Israeli prime minister said there is no conclusive evidence for the strike target being a nuclear facility?

    I predict the mountain will give birth to a mouse.

    A reminder: both Hersh and the Israeli analyst I quoted said the strike target had no roof and its internals were exposed for a long time. As far as we know Old Big box always had a roof. Are we talking on two different facilities?

  19. Gump (History)

    “Some in congress viewed the evidence in September, including photographs taken on the ground by Israeli intelligence that show the facility’s design was similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant.” NPRnewsbrief stated as a fact, not speculation.CurveballSlamdunk part 2?

  20. Rwendland (History)

    While we are waiting, here’s an image of a UK Magnox pressure vessel under construction. Berkeley 138 MWe, so maybe 27 times the volume of Yongbyon, or 3 times the diameter.

    But the interesting thing is that the steel pressure vessel was built on-site before the concrete biological shield was built around it, in these smaller UK Magnox reactors. You can see why it is much easier that way, especially when you consider the access needed to stack and key in the ~200 tonnes of graphite bricks, and other equipment, within the pressure vessel. This isn’t like a high power-density PWR where the relatively small pressure vessel is factory built.

    When we see the Syrian pics, we need to consider if it is compatible with a sensible way to on-site build a small Magnox reactor.

    [ Photo credit ]

  21. blowback (History)

    It gets even better

    A U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss classified matters, said that among the intelligence the United States has was an image of what appeared to be people of Korean descent at the facility.

    Somebody’s been looking on Flickr again!

  22. Eli Lewine (History)

    I like how Hoekstra said that he felt Congress “was being used”. Does this mean that they showed them the tape/photos and told them they were going to delist NKorea? There was quite a bit of worrying that some in Congress were going to try and use the fact that they did not have enough info to draw a line in the sand and say that Congress would make every attempt to hold up the process until they had been briefed on Syria. At every hearing Chris Hill spoke at, some Republican unfriendly to the deal made a point to bring up how indignant they were that they had not been informed about the intelligence on this issue. So, it just seems to me that the decision on this was made because Rice/Hill had gotten to the point where they wanted to delist and they needed to take away any reasons for Congressional opposition that could be perceived as legitimate enough to convince people on the fence to oppose the deal. Whether this backfires or not, we will have to wait and find out.

    Some Senators (Brownback), are meanwhile showing their general discontent by putting a hold on the President’s nominee for South Korean Ambassador. This should be a fun couple of weeks.

  23. mike (History)

    IMHO, this is a joke. Destroy first, then present flimsy evidence? Had they reported to IAEA and UNSC first and Syria refused inspectors, what did they think would happen? Syria jack the thing up and roll it someplace else to hide? The option to destroy it was there on hours (probably minutes) notice. None of this flies.

  24. China Hand (History)

    I feel comfortable with the idea that Syria and North Korea might have had a nuclear thing going on. Question for me is, at what stage does an unfueled reactor become an NPT violation? Specifically, can this quote from the AP article get fleshed out?
    “At the same time, the administration’s release of the intelligence shines light on alleged malfeasance by Syria, which has signed an international treaty requiring it to disclose nuclear interests and activity, and makes it easier for Israel to explain its decision to destroy the site. “ As for the photo, if it’s real I’d be just as willing to consider it a souvenir photo by a North Korean team member as the work of some superspy. Remember, there was talk at one time that North Korea would drop the dime on its overseas projects in return for US engagement on matters dearer to NK’s heart than its Syrian friends: like getting its state sponsor of terrorism label lifted.

  25. Andy Grotto (History)

    I have no reason to doubt Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation. Syria has reportedly wanted a reactor like this for some time, North Korea needed the money, so they cut a deal. And better to do it now, with the United States bogged down in Iraq.

    The AP has quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying that the facility was weeks from completion, and John Bolton has been on TV today asserting that the Israelis had to act when they did because if they waited and the facility went operational, an attack would spew radiation.

    As for why the Israelis would attack the facility rather than go to the IAEA, I would surmise that the IAEA’s experience with Iran was a major factor in Israel’s decision-making. Sure, we know far more about Iran’s program than we would have if the IAEA hadn’t gained access, but that doesn’t change the underlying reality that Iran’s program is proceeding. For the Israelis, this is unacceptable, and I suspect they didn’t want to take their chances with Syria.

  26. SQ

    Hold on a minute.

    The AP story says:

    “According to officials familiar with the presentation, it did not show moving images inside the facility or any North Korean workers, but included photographs that depict similarities between the North Korean and Syrian reactor designs.”

    If that means what I think it means, they could have gotten this presentation from the ISIS website (see last page).

    Are there any interior images at all? Or are we still just talking boxology? Because if it’s the latter, I’m doubtful that there is really much to add to what’s been chewed over so thoroughly in this forum in weeks and months past.

  27. Rip (History)

    Video of a still? This reeks of manipulation – specifically the way the info was “released” (i.e., basically rumor leakage). Initially implying that it was a “video” would maximize the titlliation of the media and insure much more velocity in the coverage of this information. Geez – how about putting the Power Point on a USB memory stick? Can’t afford a 4Gb stick or no LCD projectors available on the Hill?

    Why didn’t they go for broke and say it was filmed by Michael Moore using an A-hole camera! That would have guaranteed coverage by TMZ and its ilk.

    So the spirit of Karl Rowe lives or some very senior government people are dumb as rocks.

  28. anonymous (History)

    So if the Israelis went to the IAEA, whats stopping Syria from asking for a reciprical visit to Dimona? Israel has a lot of incentive (and de facto permission from the US) to act outside the IAEA framework.

  29. Andy (History)

    First off, I think many are presuming that Israel somehow got an agent past security to take pictures. More likely, IMO, is that the pictures were taken by the Syrians or, less likely, the North Koreans, for their own purposes and a turncoat somewhere along the line made copies and got them to Israel.

    Another point is that the pictures sound as though they pre-date the strike by a bit because of how Raddatz describes them in her original article:

    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.

    Rebar sticking out of concrete almost always means that more concrete has yet to be poured which indicates there is still some measure of construction left before the possibility of fueling. Consequently, I suspect there is a time delay between when the pictures were taken and the actual strike. So if these pictures ever do get released they will likely bear little resemblance to the finished North Korean example Jeffrey has kindly provided above and may instead look more like a big, round, unfinished indoor diving pool:

    Finally, a question that may open up another possibility: How long can fuel for a Magnox type reactor be stored after fabrication? If it’s a while, then the possibility exists that the fuel is already somewhere in Syria in storage, particularly if the reports about the timing of the strike are to be believed. If this is the case, then that is perhaps another reason for some of the controversy surrounding the six party talks – North Korea would have to “out” Syria for undeclared nuclear material. I have no idea if this theory is either possible or likely – I’m just throwing it out there for consideration.

  30. BJR

    White House press statement, thin gruel:

  31. AWR (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    Israel’s experience with Iraq is the more likely rationale for bombing the BoE. When they bombed OSIRAK, as it was then known, in 1981, they justified the attack in the same way Bolton did – if they waited for it to go critical, there would be too much collateral damage. Even though the Israelis caused an uproar (including U.S. Congressional hearings where they were roundly condemned by many at their individual peril, and an extraordinary Reagan Administration vote against them in the Security Council) history obviously proved them right. The attack was the first-ever action against a nuclear reactor, and caused folks to debate preemption as a strategy for nonproliferation, with many suggesting the attack had been the most serious assault on the nonproliferation regime since its founding. There was even examination of liability consequences by US nuclear industry folks, coming as it did only 2 years after Three Mile Island. The IAEA certainly took it personally, as a vote of no confidence. And thereby hangs a very long tale.

  32. Muskrat

    “Video of a still? This reeks of manipulation”

    Yeah, but the real tipoff was the haunting soundtrack and the fact that it was directed by Ken Burns.

  33. Gump (History)

    No Jeffrey, I’m not accusing you of slipping NPR any secret documents during your interview today. If NPR says they knew in September that photographs show the facility’s design was similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant we can all just simply trust them and not ask for any evidence, right?

  34. BT (History)

    NBC Nightly News has posted the entire video presentation:

  35. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    “image of what appeared to be people of Korean descent”

    Just how do you tell people of Korean descent from Chinese from, say, Heilongjiang from a photo?

    Were the Koreans wearing ROK uniforms? or DPRK flags with headbands on them saying, “Me: North Korean Nuclear Scientist”.

    I am somewhat disturbed by the release of evidence right around the time when the administration is winding down, and historically, during those times, like to lay land mines for the incoming administration or at least, to scuttle projects that come to maturity for the next administration to take credit. To wit: Send troops to Somalia.

    Video clips of photos, well, that means that the forgers (if that is what the photos are from) don’t even have to go to the trouble of details.

    Photoshop probably wasn’t needed to make them.

    Bring on the witnesses.

    Bring on the evidence.

  36. Gabriel Red (History)

    Is there a new doctrine at work here? Like was Israel’s operation really a message to the Saudis, Egyptians, the Turks, and any other potential regional nuclear power? I.e. whether or not you’re actually building a nuclear capability, we’ll strike whatever we think we see because unlike Osirak, we let Iran get too far?

    How do you say “in the crib” in Hebrew?

  37. mike (History)

    AWR – the attack on OSIRAK was not kept under wraps like this was for many months. As to other posters saying Israel could not ask IAEA, what about the US? Again – if Syria refused, the option to destroy was still there with at least some justification. And given the climate post 9/11, why was the US IC not jumping up and down about this? And what is the reason behind the silence on part of the US?

  38. SQ


    Yongbyon has got to be the most intently scrutinized nuclear site in the world — maybe the most intently scrutinized site of any kind. How likely is it that an extra load of fuel could be produced there and then spirited out of the place without anybody on the outside noticing? That would be quite a bit of activity hidden in plain sight.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying it’s… unlikely.

  39. peter zimmerman (History)

    First, I cross-post something that also went to Acton’s post on DPRK scenarios:

    Some pointed comments:

    1. I have doubts about the existence of a DPRK centrifuge plant; the intelligence I saw was awfully thin, tho’ better than the infamous Iraqi aluminum tubes. I suspect they played with the idea, but didn’t take it very far.

    2. Assuming the pictures shown by the Administration today from inside the Syrian reactor building are real and have good provenance, then the Syrian reactor matches up very well with the available interior photos from Yongbyon. And there is that damning picture of the heads of the Syrian and DPRK nuclear programs standing together.

    3. I have no objection to the DPRK making a secret uranium declaration to the US.

    4. It’s hard to believe that the DPRK only made 30 kg of Pu given that the reactor’s potential was so much greater. The Koreans did a good job back 7-8 years ago of scrambling their spent fuel, etc., so that there was no way to do good analysis of it to determine total irradiation.

    5. Given the low yield of their test, it’s also surprising that they used six kilos of Pu in the design. Oh well, somebody had to be the first to screw up badly.

    6. I have some old videotape of the interior of Yongbyon supplied by the USG back in about ’93. It was an intercept from North Korean domestic TV. The pictures of the reactor in it match up extremely well with the two photos I saw on tonight’s news of the Syrian facility.


    Those who suggest that the right course for the Israelis, assuming that the pictures fairly characterize a sample of their Intel, was to go to the IAEA are forgetting the miserable record of the IAEA in Iran.

    Next, there would be no possibility of the IAEA and/or Syria demanding an inspection of Dimona. Israel is not an NPT State Party, and Dimona is not safeguarded, so a request for an inspection would be summarily rejected, and that would be legally sound.

    Iran, and Syria, are both NPT States Parties, so that is the difference.

    To Lao Tao Ren, you know, it’s possible that a Syrian or North Korean who legitimately had a camera inside the Syrian building supplied the pictures. People do make pictures of projects under construction. And sometimes people do supply information to foreign intelligence services, and we should try hard not to burn them if they’re helping our side.


  40. Chuck (History)

    FWIW, the Beeb has both the complete statement and the video.

  41. Andy (History)

    Ok, I just saw the pictures of the Syrian reactor on the PBS newshour. It’s hard to imagine it being anything but a reactor.

    Here’s the video. Click on the appropriate link.

  42. Yossi, Jerusalem

    I think this is the clip shown to Congress:

  43. MIC
  44. FSB

    what is the big deal with People of Korean descent being seen at the facility? This was known since the Hirsch New Yorker article. They intercepted the cell phone calls in Korean.

    What is the sum total of the public “evidence”?

  45. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Here is the link to the video briefing provided to reporters late this afternoon, which we should assume is a sanitized version of the classified briefing for select members of Congress.

    I’m going to check in with my intell and physics buddies before I render an opinion.

    – Daryl Kimball

    CIA Report on Syrian Nuclear Reactor Facility

  46. yale (History)
  47. MIC (History)

    I apologize if this is a duplicate, but the video has been posted (after a brief commercial) at

  48. FSB

    OK, so BBC has some photos and video:

  49. J House (History)

    The IAEA has failed miserably to uncover this covert program, as well as Libya’s wholesale purchase of a nuclear weapons program from the AQ Kahn network. What credibility is left vis a vis Iran?
    It demonstrates why US intervention in Saddam’s Iraq was necessary. Does anyone believe that without US pressure, Saddam would have been the only guy in the neighborhood without a bomb program? (especially given Iran’s developments in recent years…surely he would not have tolerated a nuclear armed Iran on his border) UN Inspectors had been kicked out for years and the evidence now shows Saddam was clearly getting around the sanctions. He had the motive, the means (AQ Khan) and the money. Why would anyone believe that if Iran, Syria (and Libya, for crissakes) could do it, so could Saddam’s Iraq.
    I guess we should expect that Ahmadinejad will get the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
    Unbelievable.They should revoke the award given to the myopic Dr. ElBaradei & IAEA..

  50. A friend from the west

    There are lots of photos out on the web right now…i just saw a bunch on Fox news this evening. You need to post all those and the picture will be much more clear for everyone. It WAS a reactor…just like your readers posted months ago and it WAS a graphite one just like at Yong Byon just as David Albright and others of your readers posted. PERIOD!
    Those who scoff haven’t seen all the evidence but the truth will out. Now the question is, what are the Norht Koreans and Syrians going to do when they are faced with that fact that the whole world will know that they are liers (and no, this is not another Colin Powell look-a-like brief). Moreover, the Syrians did everything possible to cover this up and they almost got away with it. The new big blue BOE was built for the express purpose of excavating out the subsurface reactor remains without overhead observation.

    I love your website…Keep up the great work!

  51. J House (History)

    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
    Ask oneself why Israel would risk a conflict with Syria if not for the emergence of a WMD program?
    Why would Syria go quiet and bury the site within hours(and prevent an IAEA inspection if they had nothing to hide)? Commercial satellite imagery added more evidence it was a Yongbyon clone. I fail to understand why ‘arms control’ advocates continue to put burden of proof on the US IC (even after the Iraq debacle by the CIA)…the Syrians and NORKs have been caught red handed not declaring this program.
    Yes, it is a long walk from a plutonium reactor to a working nuclear device, but the fact is, that is exactly the path they were headed.
    Must we wait for an Iranian test before we say ‘enough’?
    Clearly, the Isrealis will not.
    I guess Cheney will get another signed copy of the BDA imagery, courtesy of the IAF, to hang alongside the Osirak photo.

  52. blowback (History)

    The Washington Post has the CIA presentation available

    The interesting bit appears between 7.45 and 7.55 minutes into the presentation. First they show a photo of the alleged Syrian reactor building on the right and then bring up the Yongbyon building on the left. Then they replace the alleged Syrian reactor building with a photo of the BoE on the left. The scale of the BoE is a fraction of the size of the alleged Syrian reactor building.

  53. John (History)

    For what it’s worth MSNBC has the presentation in question here

    I’m still skeptical. The whole thing just smells wrong to me somehow. I can’t put my finger on why though.

  54. mlt (History)

    Dear Mr. AWR,

    To the contrary, in 1981, the Israeli bombed a facility that was not suitable for a nuclear weapons programme (low yield of Pu, under IAEA supervision) and led the Iraqis to launch a parallel/secret project that nearly got them the bomb.

    In terms of smart/successful approach, one can do better.


  55. anon

    I am now confused about the core picture in the NYT – is it a still picture from a video or is it a picture of a video still filming a picture?

    <a href=“”&#062; picture of a still of picture?</a>

    the many variables in this whole affair are making the analysis of what was going on and what was debated and decided really hard for now…

  56. Rwendland (History)

    Interesting that the Syrian reactor is a bit smaller than Yongbyon. From the reactor top images I count 60 fuel channel access hatches on the Syrian reactor, but 97 on the Yongbyon 5MWe (~25MWt). Assuming each hatch gives access to the same number of fuel channels (9 I would guess), and the heights of the pressure vessels are similar, that makes the Syrian reactor about 15MWt – maybe 3kg Pu/year.

    Other interesting thing is that the pressure vessel was built in the standard way, in 3 sections out in the open (under a minimal canvas satellite-view / sun shield). Assembly would have required large cranes. This must have been plainly visible to satellite, so a fair few intelligence agencies must have figured this out between 2005 to 2006 perhaps.

    Was it a coincidence that there was quite a bit of progress in the Six-party talks during 2005?

  57. SQ

    The images in the presentation are compelling, especially the combination of the ground-truth photos with the post-bombing overhead images. Unless there’s an elaborate attempt to defraud intelligence agencies underway — not something one wants to rule out too casually nowadays — then this is the real thing.

    It is also striking that the building, prior to the addition of curtain walls, had a layout so much like Yongbyon’s. UK Magnox reactors don’t look like that.

    I have just one remaining qualm about the claims in the presentation. It says that the reactor could have been started at almost any time. Although it’s clear that the Syrians went to some lengths to make the site look like something other than what it was, there are limits to that process. It is difficult to imagine how the site, as it existed in September, could have sustained continuous operations. It is a very bare place, and it would have been awkward, at a minimum, to provide for the basic needs of the personnel who would have been needed to run it 24 hours a day. From that perspective, the facility is incomplete.

  58. b (History)

    Extarcted images from the video are here

    plus some thoughts on these

    (Posted on two threads here – sorry)

  59. Andy (History)


    I have just one remaining qualm about the claims in the presentation. It says that the reactor could have been started at almost any time.

    I think what they actually meant was fueled, not necessarily started. They would probably be able to tell when the reactor was running from imagery alone, but by that point, bombing it is not such a good idea. So the assessment was more about our lack of capability to detect the fueling process – IOW, we wouldn’t have warning for when fueling was about to occur and so in that case it’s not possible to simply wait to strike until just before it gets fueled. Therefore we couldn’t be confident from that point forward that the reactor was not fueled. Does that make sense?

  60. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Sorry but I’m still not convinced, there are too many unclear points. Please correct me if I’m wrong about these:

    * Were the Old Box walls made of concrete, metal sheet or sun screen hanging from a steel frame? Any combination or it alternated with time?

    * Was the roof made sequentially of metal sheet, nothing, sun screen then metal sheet again?

    * Why the inside photo of the core top have such ancient colors? Why it is said it’s like the NK one when it has less fuel channels? The shown top is said to be a casting mould but it’s sides are perforated not solid…

    * The previously missing hot water pipe is farther than necessary from the cold one.

    * Constructing the reactor inside a little larger building must have been very very inconvenient…

    There are certainly other problematic points.

  61. AWR (History)

    Dear Mr. MLT,

    Read again what I wrote. Safeguarded or not, Pu production-capable or not, the tactic was preemption: that’s the issue.

  62. yale (History)

    Some comment have pointed out that there are fewer fuel and control rod channels in the Syrian vs. NK reactor.

    That may be misleading.

    The Syrian image of the top of the bioshield appears to be of a work in progress.

    The channel tubing appears to be in the process of being installed.

    Note the stacks of unused tubes around the concrete pour area. It appears that the Syrians are adding tubes in rings from center and the outer ring is not yet in place.

  63. Yossi, Jerusalem

    As far as we know BoE was a perfect box in the last 5 years. It seemed to be metal sheet roof on concrete/steel frame walls. Now three sources: an anonymous Israeli analyst, Hersh’s Syrian friend and the CIA all claim BoE had no roof for an extended period of time and was not a perfect box. The CIA also says it was similar to the Yongbyon reactor building and claims that in some phase “curtain walls” were used to give it the appearance of a box.

    When this boxing phase occurred, in 2001 or during some recent coverage gap? The CIA is not specific, possibly because like us they don’t have good historical photo coverage (they said so in the briefing).

    Anyway, building this ultra secret reactor openly then boxing it seems to be a silly security policy. You can’t assume the US and Israel are not taking detailed photos of you unless you have a spy in a good place.

    The CIA claims are heavily based on the ground still photos and their supposedly proven tie with the BoE satellite photos. If the ground photos are fake or they can’t be reliably connected to BoE the whole case crumples.

    The simplest way to fake the internal photos is to use photos from the construction of Yongbyon or old English reactors. It’s interesting to note that the inside photo of the core top is tinted like ancient photographs do. It’s easy to check if some English reactor had the same number of fuel channels!

    The CIA emphasized they managed to tie the ground photos with satellite photos via some crawl space leading to a window with a vent. This doesn’t seem very convincing to me.

    A strange point is that the core top shown is said to be a casting mold before the concrete is poured but its sides are perforated not solid…

    The reactor planning/construction is supposed to began before 2001. We may assume that a supply of fuel rods was then negotiated. CIA wouldn’t disclose or doesn’t know if the fuel rods were on their way in 2007 and from which country. Since only Norks built Magnox reactors in the last 35 years and the Nork inventory is highly supervised it may be possible that the Syrians were left with a working reactor but without fuel for it.

    A reactor without fuel and without a re-processing facility is not very useful for a weapons program. Having no power generating capabilities and being IAEA undeclared and ultra secret it was not very useful for anything else. Why lose more good money and build a pump house? It raises interesting speculations.

    We have talked at ACW about the missing hot water outlet pipe. the CIA seem to had the same problem and they solved it by fiat, drawing dark lines on the photo and declaring them to be the pipe. I don’t see much evidence for their claim even in the very detailed photo of their own presentation except a certain change in the river coast outline but since the pump house is along a public road and railroad they probably had to hide them well.

    By the way, even in the older photos I see power lines and a thin barbed wire fence around part of the complex. Am I dreaming?

  64. blowback (History)

    You could knock me down with a feather – John Bolton, yes that John Bolton
    has said that he doesn’t belive the CIA has correctly identified the North Korean and the South Koreans agree with him

  65. blowback (History)

    Yossi – looking on Google Maps, I may have an answer about the missing hot water pipes – on the current image, the pipe climbs up the hill from the pump house towards the BoE then I can see an above-ground pipe entering the BoE at the south-west corner and then another above-ground pipe leaves the BoE at the south-east corner and enters what appears to me to be a filled-in trench heading south east that can be followed all the way to the second box to the East.

    BTW, can anybody tell me where the berm is on the current Google Map images which look like they were taken just prior to the bombing – the “cement truck” can be seen just south east of the BoE.

  66. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Blowback, this bit about Bolton is very interesting. Maybe BoE was not nuclear either?

    I think the Google maps image you refer to can be found at Allen’s sourcebook.

    Go to the 4th image (about page 746/831), rotate the image 180 degrees so the shadows are towards you and use 200% magnification. What you see is much better than Google maps provides.

    Allen’s 8th image (about page 750/831) is even better.

    The line that goes up the nearby hill casts a shadow which looks darker and wider than itself (why?). Near the box it rides something that looks like a pole. It looks as if it’s bent under its own weight. This line could be a power line supplying electricity to BoE but I don’t see more poles and only a short “c” shaped continuation on the hill. Maybe it goes underground when it reaches the hill then runs to the sister site.

    The second line looks in image #4 like it connects to BoE at ground level near a corner. In image #8 it looks above ground and casts a shadow. Because of the photo angle we can’t be sure if it’s straight or bent. It could be a pipe going to the road leading to the river (and pump house) or a power line to the pump house. In the CIA “video” the line looks straight so it’s possibly water.

    If the second line is the inlet cold water pipe, the CIA blurb about an underground cooling water reservoir seems a bull.

    Maybe the CIA cheat showing in their “video” a hot water line near the pump house. I may be wrong but it looks like they just drew a wavy line along an elongated earth mound and declared it to be a buried pipe. Their photos were taken before the Syrians finished working on the pump house and are very good. There was a lot of earth moving work near the pump house that may have uncovered the pipe but didn’t.

    I didn’t see yet convincing proof BoE had an outlet hot water pipe and without one it couldn’t be a nuclear reactor. This is an important point because we are not sure yet the famous internal photos were taken inside BoE. The CIA method of tying the internal photos with the overhead ones could mislead them and wasn’t publicly demonstrated so we can’t check.

    If BoE had only an inlet pipe this could mean, for example that water were used only in case of an accident and not to cool anything while running normally. Of course the sly Syrians who knew that a hot water pipe is an incriminating evidence may have hidden it in some ingenious way. I wish ACW experts would examine this point.