IAEA and Syria – Walking the Walk
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
The September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a facility located in Dair Alzour, Syria, suspected of housing a nuclear reactor, has been a well-reported event. Syria’s denial of the nuclear-linked nature of the destroyed building, and its belated response to provide International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to the site has also been well documented in various IAEA reports.
Based on all information made available and findings from the one-off visit to Dair Alzour, the IAEA concluded in June this year that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor under construction. Samples taken from Dair Alzour indicated the presence of man-made uranium which is not in the declared nuclear material inventory of Syria. The IAEA Board of Governors found Syria non-compliant with its safeguards agreement and referred the case to the UN Security Council.
Two take-aways can be drawn from the Syrian case.
First, the IAEA’s findings on Syria is an important attestation of an information-driven safeguards approach that underpins strengthened safeguards within the IAEA. The traditional core of IAEA verification continues to be physical access to nuclear material, facilities, sites, and people. But in situations where international inspectors are hampered or denied cooperation in some or all of the above, varied approaches that include examining and corroborating information available from: satellite imagery, procurement activities, on-site inspection observations, and open source data, have been key in supplementing the IAEA’s findings. In the case of Syria, these additional tools in the kit have led the IAEA to draw conclusions on the nature of the Dair Alzour facility.
Second, even as Syria’s dossier has been referred to the UN Security Council, it remains a case of on-going investigation at the IAEA. Syria’s statements regarding the non-nuclear nature of the destroyed building have lacked details. It has also failed to provide a satisfactory explanation to the uranium contamination found at Dair Alzour. Syria has also not lived up to its safeguards’ commitments when it failed to report activities conducted at the Miniature Research Reactor (MNSR) in Damascus involving nuclear material.
To move forward on the nuclear dossier, the IAEA together with Syria reached an agreement in September last year that established a plan of action to resolve issues related to MNSR. The plan included, inter alia, actions related to the amounts and use of nuclear material concerning uranium conversion experiments. The IAEA’s subsequent investigations showed that its findings were not inconsistent with Syria’s statements concerning the origin of uranium used during experiments undertaken, and on the origin of uranium particles found at the MNSR. However, this does not mean that all nuclear material related issues in Syria have been resolved. Questions concerning the source of uranium particles found at Dair Alzour remain open. Uncertainties also continue to surround nuclear material related activities that have a bearing on the destroyed site, in particular, at one of the three locations which the IAEA has unsuccessfully sought access since 2008.
We also know that the kind of reactor which was being constructed at Dair Alzour was neither suitable for isotope production nor for nuclear R&D purposes. And it was also too small to be meaningful for electricity generation. Rather, it resembled a plutonium production reactor similar to one that North Korea operated in Yongbyong.
So while the work plan is important to progress matters when meaningfully applied, the IAEA has the opportunity as well as onus to seek, in its meetings this week with Syria, a broader and more comprehensive scope beyond what is reflected in Syria’s current offer. Dair Alzour is the focus of the problem, but it is not the only problem, hence the need to address all nuclear material and activities in Syria – such as foreign involvement in Syria’s nuclear program and related offers made including on uranium enrichment.
Ensuring safeguards is kept to a high and comprehensive standard is not an easy business. Neither is it a job that necessarily endears itself to states. That is because safeguards, at the end of the day, is about walking the walk.
Before joining the Belfer Center as a senior fellow in August 2010, Olli Heinonen served for 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, including five years as Deputy Director General, and head of the Department of Safeguards.