5:00 PM, Sep 13, 2011 • By MICHAEL ANTON
As for not finding one “in the region,” what about the rest of the country? Spent fuel rods are routinely transported great distances all over the world. And what about the possibility that the rods were intended to be reprocessed in another country—say, in North Korea, which we know has mastered and used the technology? Bilateral reprocessing deals are not uncommon. Granted, one between two rogue states would be more difficult to carry out than an agreement between France and Japan (to cite but one long-distance arrangement that actually exists). But it would appear that the two states got pretty close to clandestinely completing a nuclear reactor. Keeping secret shipments of spent fuel rods would be easy by comparison.
The CIA also, according to Woodward’s sources, cited the lack of any “identifiable means to manufacture uranium fuel.” Fair enough, as far as it goes. But not every nation that operates a nuclear reactor manufactures its own fuel. Uranium for reactors—as opposed to bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU)—is commercially available on an international market. Of course, the trade is tightly controlled and a rogue state like Syria might have trouble finding an honest seller. But it also might have less trouble finding a dishonest one. It takes a great deal of HEU to make a bomb but comparatively little low-enriched uranium to run a reactor. Uranium is also not that expensive. It’s hardly inconceivable that Syria had a plan to import its fuel. Most of the world’s successful nuclear programs have relied on such outside assistance, at least to get started.
In a background briefing with reporters nearly a year after this meeting, a CIA official said (in Woodward’s paraphrase), “there was not much physical evidence the reactor was part of a weapons program.” This is a curious statement. There need not be any physical evidence that a reactor is part of a weapons program and yet it might still be used to make weapons. A reactor, simply by the nature of what it does, produces plutonium that can be used to make bombs (and smaller, more sophisticated and lethal bombs than HEU).
The reactor may be designed in all earnestness and good faith only to generate electricity. Nonetheless it will still produce plutonium as a byproduct. Whether to harvest that plutonium and use it to make weapons is a political decision that need not affect the design of the reactor. The U.S. ceased reprocessing plutonium from commercial reactors in 1977. Before that, some of the cores in our nuclear arsenal were derived from plutonium created in the same reactors powering lamps, refrigerators and televisions in American homes. The reactors kept on operating after the decision to stop reprocessing. While there are special plants (“breeder reactors”) designed to produce plutonium at a faster clip, there is nonetheless no clear line between a reactor intended for a weapons program and one used to generate electricity.
The briefer went on to explain that his “assessment” was that the reactor was “planned to be part of a weapons program,” but he had to distinguish between evidence and an assessment. In his view, the evidence was not strong enough to conclude that the reactor was part of a weapons program. Why then was his own “assessment” that it was? He doesn’t say, and Woodward does not clarify.
It does, however, seem that based on the evidence presented and on some facts not mentioned, the briefer’s assessment was in that respect correct. Consider, for instance, the fact that to this day the Syrians have never protested the Israeli strike—as surely they would have done had the reactor been intended for purely peaceful purposes. Nor did the Syrians inform the IAEA of the plant’s construction as required under the terms of the NPT, to which Syria is a signatory. Iran, by contrast, has always acknowledged its own reactor at Bushehr, which remains under IAEA safeguards.
The most telling and newsworthy details in Woodward’s account however have nothing to do with the reactor itself. He writes that Hayden “later told others that he … intentionally shaped his presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike … Hayden’s declaration of low confidence was, in effect, his anti-slam dunk.” Then: “At the CIA afterward, the group of specialists who had worked for months on the Syrian reactor issue were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, ‘No core/No war.’”