James ActonNorks May Have Shipped Syria U Fuel

I haven’t been blogging much recently but I hope to make up for that today with some remarkable material on Syria that Jeffrey and I were given in the last 24 hours.

A source summarized for us some of the information the IAEA has that didn’t make its recent report on Syria as well as its working hypotheses. Specifically, it appears that the uranium found in Syria may have come from fuel imported from North Korea. But, all in good time…

I will try to be very clear in differentiating between what I was told and my own further speculations and musings. Two general points first, though.

Number one, our source stressed that the composite overhead imagery the IAEA has of the site is very good, both in terms of its resolution, frequency and reliability—five states apparently contributed images.

Second, there appears to be little momentum behind following up the salt mine story, which is making some rather unhappy.

Onto the uranium…

Is the uranium contamination significant?

In a letter to the IAEA, reported in GOV/2008/60, Syria states that “[i]t is necessary to draw attention also to the fact that the result of the analysis of one sample points to three uranium particles, whereas the results of four other samples taken from the same place within a 30 metre range contained no uranium particles.”

According to our source, the reason for the difference between the samples may be that the site at which uranium contamination was found was outside the area that Syria scraped clean, whereas the sites showing no uranium contamination were inside the “scrape zone”. Our source also emphasizes that three particles is a “significant” level of contamination.

I note that the BOE was about 50 m across and, based on these images from ISIS, the scrape zone is a little larger. On that scale, 30 m is a significant distance; it is not remotely “the same place” as Syria tries to claim.

When Jeffrey blogged about this subject, the enrichment level of the uranium contamination wasn’t clear. In GOV/2008/60, the IAEA reports that it is unenriched but “anthropogenic”. Our source says that the IAEA believes it is probably from nuclear fuel. This leads me to conclude the particles must be metallic uranium as this is what’s used in magnox fuel.

Magnox fuel is so called because of the magnesium-aluminium alloy used to clad the fuel. No traces of the cladding have been found. I speculate that this is probably because magnox alloy, being non-radioactive, is harder to detect than uranium. As Vitaly Fedchenko explains in this excellent article environmental samples are first screened by the IAEA using high resolution gamma ray spectrometry to detect radioactive particles—and that ain’t much help in looking for magnox alloy.

This would be a major development, since the US intelligence community has stated unequivocally that the reactor “was destroyed in early September 2007 before it was loaded with nuclear fuel or operated.”

According to our source, the IAEA is also speculating that one of the three installations it has asked to visit—the one that was subsequently subject to “landscaping activities” or what Jeffrey is churlishly calling the “old Imam Hossein University try“—was a fuel storage facility. Remind anyone of Iran’s attempts to remove uranium traces from the Kayale Electric Factory?

Where did the fuel come from?

Most intriguingly, our source informed me that there is speculation within the Agency that the fuel came from North Korea. In a report of a January 2004 visit to North Korea, Sig Hecker wrote this:

They [the North Koreans] stated that have one more charge of fuel for the reactor fabricated now. The fuel fabrication facility is partially operational and partially under maintenance. They are in no hurry to fabricate more fuel since the two bigger reactors under construction are not close to operation.

We did not have the opportunity to visit the fuel fabrication facility. However, these comments are consistent with previous U.S. estimates. In previous years, the fuel fabrication complex was reported to be making fuel elements containing about 100 tonnes per year of uranium. The complex is believed to have produced enough fuel for the initial loading of the core for the 50 MWe reactor under construction. Moreover, the nominal capacity was appreciably larger.

So what happened to all, or some, this fuel? No prizes for guessing the IAEA working hypothesis.

Our source said that some in the IAEA are even going so far as to speculate that North Korea was “flipped” by the US and admitted that it had shipped the fuel to Syria. The US then told Israel who… you know the rest.

In fact, this is not at all as far fetched as it might sound to some of you (and this is me speculating now). The IAEA is responsible for ongoing verification activities at the Fuel Fabrication Plant in Yongbyon. It must know whether the fuel is present and given its theories I’m assuming it knows that the fuel isn’t there (although it is remarkable this information hasn’t leaked). Presumably when the IAEA first discovered the fuel’s absence it must have asked North Korea where it was, possibly forcing it to ‘fess up.

Incidentally this might also explain why North Korea is having kittens about permitting environmental sampling at Yongbyon. The IAEA (or US) could potentially prove and publicly confirm that the fuel in Syria came from North Korea if both have a similar “fingerprint” of trace elements. Even if North Korea has privately acknowledged the sale of fuel to Syria (and that is far from clear) it might not want to give the US the means to publicly embarrass it.

Why would North Korea sell fuel to Syria?

My reasoning runs something like this…

We know that the fuel in question was in North Korea when Hecker visited in January 2004. If it has been shipped out, it had to have occurred before July 2007 when IAEA verification resumed. This window corresponds to the nadir of US-North Korea relations. Maybe North Korea felt the prospects of extorting aid from the US were low then, so it decided to sell the fuel to Syria instead.

Jeffrey reminded me of this story from 2002:

At one point, the North Korean official, Li Gun, pulled aside the top senior official, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, and in effect told him: “We’ve got nukes. We can’t dismantle them. It’s up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them.”

Maybe Li Gun actually threatened to transfer fuel and was misunderstood or misquoted. Maybe North Korea thought it too risky to transfer a weapon but wanted to make clear their threats were credible so decided to transfer fuel instead (as well as conducting a test). Either way the sale of fuel to Syria is not quite the bolt from the blue it might first appear.

So, will there be a request for a special inspection?

No, according to our source, at least.

The IAEA Secretariat feels it would be entirely justified but questions its utility. Apparently, they are concerned negotiations would take too long and slow the process down. (See Andreas Persbo’s post on this subject.)

Personally I think this is bunk (I strongly suspect that the resistance to a special inspection stems right from the top). The IAEA already has to negotiate with Syria over access. Calling for a special inspection would probably not affect the pace of these negotiations.

It would, however, be the start of a process of “normalizing” this key inspection tool (as I have written repeatedly in past publications). Jeffrey has also made the case for this and he’s spot on. Look at is this way, if the IAEA doesn’t call for a special inspection now, how could it do so in other situations, where the justification is less clear cut?


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Just for orientation purposes, here’s what ISIS says about the Yongbyon fuel elements:


    “…North [Korea] discharged about 8,000 spent fuel rods (or about 50 metric tons of fuel) from the 5 megawatt (electric) reactor. The fuel rod itself is a cylinder of natural uranium metal encased in a magnesium alloy cladding that contains about 0.55% zirconium. Each rod is about 50 centimeters in length and about 2.9 centimeters in diameter (including the cladding). The rod is surrounded by fins, bracers, and other structures necessary to support the rod in the reactor fuel channel.”

    Both the 8,000 rods/50 tons figure and the dimensions of the individual natural uranium rods are consistent with a weight of about 6.25 kg/rod.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    There is a conflict here.

    This would be a major development, since the US intelligence community has stated unequivocally that the reactor “was destroyed in early September 2007 before it was loaded with nuclear fuel or operated.”

    If it was destroyed before it was loaded with nuclear fuel, then where did the uranium come from?

    Ah yes, the weasel words or operated.

    The way that sentence is written, we can’t tell if that’s an inclusive or exclusive or.

    So the CIA can claim they were right, either way, although the fact that they stated that the attack was before the reactor was loaded with fuel seems to indicate that they thought that was the salient point.

    And I’m wondering if there was electron microscopy done of the soil samples, particularly the one(s) with uranium in them. That could show up cladding or graphite particles.

  3. Rwendland (History)

    Keith Luse’s trip report of Sig Hecker’s and his visit to NK Feb 2008 has some intriguing comments pertaining to the NK/Syria connection.

    Luse writes that, during discussions in Pyongyang with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the DPRK representatives said:

    “Syria has been declared per the October 3 agreement (meaning there would be no transfer of nuclear technology, etc.)”

    “… We have already declared Syria.”

    When asked by an American to clarify, “…in terms of export, what is a complete declaration?”, a North Korean official responded “North Korea will declare all.”

    This rather suggests NK disclosed some info about any past Syria link sometime in 2007, but was holding back full details of any past exports until the disablement and HFO delivery process had moved further on.

    I suppose there is even a small possibility some of Al Kibar photos made public earlier this year came from the NK declaration about Syria.

    Another interesting comment about fuel fabrication is in Sig Hecker’s Feb 2008 trip report:

    Fuel Fabrication Facility. … However, the middle part, the fluorination facility, had deteriorated so badly during the freeze (1994 to 2003) that the building has been abandoned (as we were shown in August 2007). However, the DPRK had recently completed alternate fluorination equipment (using dry rather than wet techniques) in one of the ancillary buildings. However, this was a makeshift operation that has limited through-put potential. It was not put into full operation by the time of the shut-down on July 15.

    This rather suggests the Fuel Fabrication Facility has not been fully functional since 1994. Which suggests any complete fuel elements exported to Syria must have been pre-1994 stock. (Although “not put into full operation” might just mean enough fuel for a tiny reactor could be produced.)

    Hecker previously reported NK had unused fuel for the initial loading of the never-completed 50 MWe Magnox prototype power reactor in 1994. It would be interesting to know if the Yongbyon 5MWe experimental reactor or the (slightly smaller) probable Syrian reactor used the same size fuel elements as the unfinished 50MWe prototype reactor.

  4. Andy (History)

    As I’ve said in several comments now it does not appear from the post-strike imagery that the reactor vessel was penetrated, nor does it appear than penetrating weapons were used at all. The damage appears consistent with general purpose munitions. Furthermore, we only see the vessel with the top off and broken immediately prior to its burial. The vessel appears intact even after the building is demolished (though it’s covered with a tarp). One can’t, unfortunately, be definitive here because the imagery is not the best quality, but there doe not seem to be any evidence to suggest the vessel was significantly damaged.

    So how could reactor fuel have been scattered if the vessel wasn’t penetrated? The obvious answer is that the fuel (or some portion of it) was in the building but not yet loaded into reactor itself. If the reactor was near completion and ready to be fueled, as the intel alleges, this possibility does not seem implausible.

    As to the North Korean connection, we need to consider when a fuel deal was finalized when analyzing this possibility. Was it before or after BOE construction, which began in the spring or summer of 2001? It is more likely, in my view, that a fuel agreement would occur before construction began than after. I haven’t had time to research, but it might be useful to look closely what North Korea was doing around 1999-2000 for any clues that might strengthen or undermine this theory. If North Korea knew in the late 1990’s or 2000 that it would secretly provide fuel to Syria, then it seems reasonable to assume they would have begun taking steps to ensure the secrecy of such an endeavor.

  5. Yossi (History)

    And why exactly this diamond hard and bullet proof evidence didn’t make it into the recent IAEA report nor its working hypotheses? Oh, I see, it’s the big, black and very bad DG who is always pestering us with his lawyerly hair splitting distinctions. Why don’t they replace him with a good Texan with a long rodeo experience? You are a good friend so I can whisper something in your ear. Yes, yes, he’s an Arab and he believes in Islam! Isn’t this crazy? I almost fell from the chair when I first heard it! talking about equality taken too far…

    My guess? A desperate last minute spin originating in US anti-Syrian circles and mediated to Jeffrey and James via IAEA internal politics. The target? Saving USIC non-existent honor and killing the peace talks between Israel and Syria.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Could be, but I don’t think so.

    There are a lot of things I don’t understand about this story right now, but I am pretty sure this isn’t spin.

    People could be mistaken, but I don’t feel like the motive is malevolent.

  7. Gump (History)

    Jeffrey, why do you think IC evidence was not included in DG’s report?

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I think the DG plays it safe with what he can prove — which is the right thing to do.

    Pointing out, for example, that commercial imagery of the one of the sites shows it being razed (what I am calling the “old Imam Hossein University try”) doesn’t buy you anything, nor does engaging in speculation about what you make of the it.

    You have to write the carefully-worded, even-handed paragraph even when your every analytic nerve is screaming: BULLSH*T!

  9. Yossi

    I apologize for implying James and Jeffrey fell for a US spin.

    Jeffrey, you are probably right and it’s not a malevolent act nor a planned spin. My second guess is someone who feels in his guts the US is right and Syria is guilty as hell. Or maybe it’s cognitive dissonance between loyalty and professional integrity.

    I guess I got paranoid because Israeli media have a field day on this issue. The largest daily paper (Yedioth Achronot) repeated on 20.11 that the IAEA found traces of ENRICHED Uranium and made the most of this fake fact.

    In ACW time honored tradition we should analyze the following points (in order of appearance in the blog):

    * Why this info didn’t make it into the IAEA report and working hypotheses? Foul play or professional decision?

    * Was the “scrape zone” just a little larger than BoE? Maybe it was most of the valley area?

    * Did the IAEA find pure metallic Uranium with 0.5% Aluminum (NK fuel) and why they keep silent on this point? How the pyrophoric Uranium got shredded to particles without burning? Did they find Uranium Oxide?

    * A plausible theory to explain why no traces of the Magnesium/Zirconium cladding were found. Burned and carried away due to its lower density? Ignored because of suspected contamination with US munitions?

    * Is there any indication nuclear fuel was brought to the site? We know the El Hamed didn’t visit NK for six years. Any US sanctions on NK relevant to this issue?

    * Is there nearby a fuel storage facility? Where is this “landscaped site” (since the Tibnah salt mine option is out)?

    * Is there really any unaccounted for nuclear fuel at Yongbyon? How did an entire reactor load slip through the IAEA net? Why the IAEA didn’t cry foul before? Why they cry foul now? Note R. Wendland’s quote above from the Hecker report.

    * Had NK flipped on Syria and endangered future export to Syria and Iran? Is this why Iran works now on the Sejil? What NK got in return, if anything? Who supplied the ground photos? Why the “construction photo” seems a fake?

    * Why the IAEA don’t ask for a special inspection in Syria? The DG is abusing his authority? NPT members are fed up with selective enforcement and no pressure to join on non-NPT members who develop nukes?

    As you see, I still maintain an open mind in spite of indications it’s all a hoax…

    Apparently there is an internal struggle inside IAEA between the pro-US majority and the professional minority and ACW discussions became a convenient arena. Mr. Presbo ACW blog says:

    “Despite photographs supplied by the US intelligence community, there are many that remains unconvinced by the strength of the evidence. You’ll find skeptics everywhere, on the comment pages of this blog, and even in the Vienna International Center’s staff cafeteria”

    “A while back, sitting down over a cup of coffee with a friend in Vienna, I heard how the Agency had structured its investigations. Keen to avoid leakage to the wider community and the press, the probe is handled by a small and tight-lipped group of people within the Department of Safeguard’s Middle East Division. Indeed, the Syria analysts keep to themselves, and do not share or discuss their findings with the rest of the division. This has caused disgruntlement amongst some within the Agency, who argue that there are risks with keeping information tight. Eventually the group sees what it want to see.”

    “While there are skeptics in Vienna, the majority view within the Department of Safeguards is reportedly that the facility was a reactor.”

    The picture painted here is of a little group of professionals under siege. The Syria analysts are keeping to themselves separated from the department majority that is convinced it was a N-reactor without seeing the evidence! This seems like they are trying to keep their professional stance under internal political pressure. By the way, the IAEA is well aware of the Dreamer analysis.

    What goes on here? Mr. Presbo says:

    “In Vienna, the Syrians continues to pretend like nothing has happened. The Israelis themselves keep out of sight whenever the mysterious air-raid is mentioned. The only country that seems to want some closure on the matter is the United States, its diplomats are busy trying to corner and contain the Syrians at the Viennese nuclear court. It is not that difficult. Syria, like its ally Iran, does not have many friends and allies in Vienna. However, many ask what the US have to gain by putting pressure on Damascus at this age of puzzling rapprochement between the Syrian government and its arch-enemies in Jerusalem.”

    The answer for this question is easy, the Bush administration was opposed all along to the Israeli/Syrian peace talks. Maybe they think that stirring up this issue will put a pressure on the Israeli government to stop them? Maybe they think it will help Netanyahu be elected?

    I have a provocative suggestion. This link lets everyone test their analytical skills on the probably fake “BoE construction photo”. I invite ACW readers to look at it.

  10. Josh

    So how was Syria going to handle the spent fuel? Were they going to ship it back to North Korea for reprocessing? This seems unlikely for a number of reasons.

    First, if you ship spent fuel rods around the world and then ship the Pu back, you’re taking big risks of being caught — bigger than those involved in the original shipment of fresh fuel, because the stuff is now hot, it has to make a round trip, and (when considering the consequences of getting caught) it is now bona-fide fissile material.

    Second, the NKs are notorious double-dealers who have been known to take the money and run. Consider how they took Saddam’s money and then told him that there was too much scrutiny to deliver the goods (missiles, in this case). There does not appear to have been any refund.

    Third (related to the second point), as the reactor was approaching readiness, the NKs had cut a new deal with the U.S. The Yongbyon complex, always under a great deal of scrutiny, was once again swarming with foreigners for the foreseeable future, not to mention undergoing disablement.

    Those other sites are looking awfully interesting right about now.

  11. Yossi

    It’s getting a little confusing so let’s summarize how the Uranium traces could get to BoE:

    * Aircraft munitions – probably metallic, may be pure or alloyed. Could be carried by the wind from Iraq or must be introduced in the strike?

    * NK nuclear fuel – metallic with 0.5% Aluminum.

    * Homs product – yellowcake but since the Syrians experimented with TBP extraction it could also be pure Uranium (i.e. metallic).

    * MNSR product – the Syrians may have done irradiation experiments and produced various isotopes. If for example they irradiated natural Uranium they converted part of it to Plutonium.

    We see that the presence of metallic Uranium is not a good indicator for nuclear fuel source as most options above involve this stuff.

    What about the survivability of metallic Uranium when shredded to particles and exposed to the Syrian winter?

    Uranium is pyrophoric, i.e. its autoignition temperature is below room temperature and it’ll ignite spontaneously when powdered or sliced thinly. When finely divided Uranium can also react with cold water. The term “particles” used by the IAEA suggests a small size and thus higher reactivity.

    Note that the Uranium traces in the IAEA samples spent about half a year outside including the winter. Vegetation in satellite images taken before and after the strike confirms it was raining in this area at the relevant period. Of course it’s possible some object protected the sample area from the weather, e.g. stone or remnant of the attacking munitions.

    We can speculate that metallic Uranium may have survived at the center of the Uranium particles but as said above this is no conclusive clue for NK nuclear fuel.

    Let’s keep pursuing the red herring we have been offered and speculate about possible indications for NK nuclear fuel source:

    * A large Uranium sample that retained its original shape and looks like a chunk of fuel rod. The term “particle” seems to rule out this option.

    * Plutonium traces – since the alleged Syrian reactor was not operative this is probably a counter-indication suggesting research at the MNSR.

    * A nuclear forensic profile similar or identical to NK fuel. This is hard evidence for NPT transgression and would have prompted IAEA to severe steps that didn’t happen.

    What do you think?

  12. AWR (History)

    The reason for reluctance in ordering special inspections is clear to those who know the background: if you ask for one, it’s a red flag, and if the legal provision is “abused,” can actually impede the goal of Agreed Protocols for all member states. What I mean is that the standard of verification is so much higher under regular procedures in the AP that the Agency is wary of the irregular procedure that is the special inspection. It is notable that no special inspection was requested for Iran, where it would arguably be far more helpful in finding out just what is going on than in Syria, in the grand scheme of things. I think ElBaradei is looking at the bigger picture, envisioning a Middle East where every NPT member had agreed to the AP, a decided upgrade from 153 agreements. We should also not discount the commercial considerations that led to the Board’s decision to describe special inspections as a rarely-used tool.

    when you’re in the business, the last thing you want is a bunch of inspectors bumping around in your plant. I don’t agree with this view, but this is the situation as I see it.