Joshua PollackSyria’s Tibnah Salt Mine Revisited

One of the more important questions about Syria’s nuclear program has got to be, Just where is it, anyway? Those of us who were initially skeptical of reports that the Dayr al-Zawr facility had been a reactor could point to the almost complete absence of ancillary buildings at the site. Where would fresh fuel be produced and stored? Where would spent fuel go? What about reprocessing facilities? And waste sites? And so on.  So it caught many eyes when GOV/2008/60, the IAEA’s first safeguards report on Syria, mentioned “three other locations alleged by some Member States to be of relevance” where “landscaping activities and the removal of large containers took place shortly after the Agency’s request for access.”

On December 1, David Albright and Paul Brannan of ISIS published a short report mentioning locations near Masyaf and Iskandariya, both in the vicinity of Hama, and Marj as-Sultan, close to Damascus. The authors also mention a fourth site that has attracted the IAEA’s interest. They don’t name it, but we can make an educated guess: the Tibnah (or Tibni) salt mine at 35° 33′ 07″N, 39° 48′ 38″E, about 17 km south of the former reactor site. (The mine appears in the overhead view to the right.)

As far as I’m aware, Andreas Persbo made the first public mention of Tibnah in connection with the reactor back in October 2008. Andreas observed that the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission had undertaken a “preliminary report” on whether the mine could be used to store radioactive waste, which would seem to make it a legitimate object of interest for nuclear safeguards. But it has yet to appear in any of the IAEA’s several reports on Syria.

Back to the Salt Mine

Lately, though, Tibnah has begun to creep back into view. In an October 2010 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley added a handful of pieces to the puzzle. The mine, he reports, is operated by the General Company for Phosphate and Mines (GECOPHAM), the same state-owned enterprise that operates the Homs Phosphate Fertilizer Plant, which removes uranium impurities from phosphates… thereby also producing yellowcake. He also cites the study mentioned previously by Persbo.

The document, titled, “Preliminary Report on General Setting of Tibni-Salt Mine for an Interim and Final Storage of Radioactive Waste in Syria,” happens to be in the IAEA’s collection. The abstract can be found online. The study was undertaken from May 1997 to May 1998. (The Principal Investigator was named as Mohssen Alimoussa of the Syrian Atomic Energy Agency; someone with the same name represented Syria’s oil ministry in this 2004 international meeting on environmental statistics.) The purpose envisioned for the site was described as “international radioactive waste disposal.”

As Kelley observes, the Tibnah study coincides with the initiation of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation, which the U.S. intelligence community dates to 1997. Still more striking is the sharp drop in salt production in 2007, as seen in data available through 2008 from the U.S. Geological Survey. But at some time between 2004 and 2008, satellite photos show an expansion of activities at the site, not a contraction. Kelley suggests that the part of the mine may have been “pressed into service” to store debris from the reactor, thus becoming unavailable for salt production.

Even if not named by ISIS, Tibnah has become higher-profile lately. Most recently, it’s garnered a mention in the mass media (see the December 2 article about Syria and the IAEA by Paul-Anton Krueger in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung). Given the waste-disposal study submitted to the IAEA, not to mention the lack of a plausible military connection to an active salt mine — the excuse used by the Syrians to deny the IAEA access to the other three sites — there ought to be growing pressure on Damascus to grant access.

Update, Dec. 13, 7:26 pm. Based on a number of hints and suggestions received offline, it’s apparent that Tibnah is not the fourth site of interest to the IAEA.

Comments

  1. FSB (History)

    “…there ought to be growing pressure on Damascus to grant access.”

    Shall we limit the discussion to the technical without indulging in such political statements?

    There _ought_ to be worldwide nuclear disarmament — all middle east countries _ought_ to sign up to the NPT, and they all ought to get rid of their nuclear weapons.

    That said, do you know if Syria’s CSA allows it control over its U mining/ore related work without IAEA interference, as does Iran’s?

  2. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The facility bombed did not look like a Plutonium production facility.

    Reports in the press shortly before the attack was revealed stated that several North Koreans had been killed by an explosion of a facility producing chemical warhead for Korean supplied missiles.

    It is quite possible that Syria is covering up something incredibly embarrassing but not nuclear.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Did not look like a plutonium production facility??

      The building was dimensionally identical (to within the error margin for the satellite photos used) and the reactor core and its foundation photographed seem unambiguously nuclear.

      Unless you believe that the photos which leaked were fakes of some sort, which seems unlikely, this is a fairly slam dunk case.

  3. Jeb (History)

    Radioactive power sources need much more collective methods of regulation and development. Only a global network of engineers could make use of these power sources effectively and safely. France has demonstrated an effective solution and the sheer quantity of possible errors that smaller, less aware countries can make is incredibly daunting. A global community is the only way to ensure that some less moral country won’t cut the wrong corner and endanger their population and/or the environment that we all rely on.

  4. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks for the overhead and commentary, Joshua.

    When the ISIS report came out, my commenters and I took a look at the “items” parked around the site near Masyaf. The best guess seems to be that they are artillery, and hence the site is a Syrian army site.

    That may or may not be related to the Dayr al-Zawr/al Kibar facility. But artillery is not reactor parts.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Masyaf indeed looks like artillery, IMHO – road configured and a few legs deployed 122mm towed artillery pieces, and the 4-wheeled 4-gun 23mm AA gun trailer unit (I think) make up most of the objects which are visible outside there.

  5. FSB (History)

    Suppose the Syrians allow access to this facility and nothing implicating is found. Will there be demands to look into other facilities? When will it end?

    There is no way, no how to prove a negative.

    As Iran is learning.

  6. Anon (History)

    Re. Special Investigations — Mr. Arnold Evans’ comments from a previous post apply here:

    I quote:

    “I see the words “special inspection” used by members of the Western nuclear policy community as if they contain some kind of magic.

    The IAEA can call for special inspections of facilities, as long as they follow the procedures agreed upon.

    What do you think they are going to find? They are not going to find a hidden stockpile of fissile material.

    And after they don’t find it, of course, the IAEA will still be able to claim that Iran and Syria have not “provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran [or Syria] is in peaceful activities”.

    And Iran and Syria still will have no legal obligation, regardless of that IAEA claim, to implement the AP to provide that necessary cooperation.

    Amano should go ahead and call as many special inspections as he wants, as long as he does so following the procedures spelled out in the CSA.”

    • joshua (History)

      You have a big heart. Alas, somehow I cannot muster sympathy for the Syrians, who haven’t cooperated with the IAEA very much, and whose story keeps changing about their undeclared experiments with undeclared nuclear materials.

      An important difference between Iran and Syria at this point is that Syria has not been found in noncompliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. But in light of the above, it may just be a matter of time.

      Signing and implementing an Additional Protocol is certainly an option open to Syria if they decide to come clean about their past activities and seek to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of their present nuclear activities. But let’s not hold our breath.

  7. irshsad (History)

    Syria, a country whose land is still occupied by a nuclear armed state next to it and is threathened with war and sanctions by both that state and its backers..hmm i wonder why Syria has decided to go along this path…!

    Joshua, maybe when Isreal is a member of the NPT then Syria can think about the AP…but like you said, lets not hold out breath.

    Maybe seen things in a regional context will answer a lot fo questions you are wondering about.

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