Foreign Policy Blogs

Syria and the SAL

Last week, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano reported what he considered a mini-advance in ongoing deliberations with the Syrian government over access to the Dair Alzour, or Al-Kibar site.  In lieu of allowed access to that site, the Syrian government offered up the Homs acid purification facility.  On a scale of “meh” to “wow!”, this is surely a “meh”.

You will recall that Israel bombed a site near Dair Alzour in September 2007, destroying what it believed to be a nearly complete gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactor allegedly supplied by the ironically-named Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.  That reactor, if completed, would have been able to make weapons-grade plutonium.  The U.S. government has downplayed the recent Hom offering, pressing instead for access to the disputed Dair Alzour site so that more environmental samples can be gathered.

The Backstory

Since the IAEA’s initial visit to the destroyed Dair Alzour site in 2008, Syria has stonewalled additional IAEA access. The results of the first set of samples taken back then didn’t come out so well for Syria: analysis revealed man-made uranium particles produced through chemical processing.  Further analysis of environmental samples revealed additional uranium particles not declared by Syria’s nuclear material inventory. The findings were inconsistent with Syrian claims that the particles originated in Israeli missiles used to destroy Dair Alzour.  Clearly, Syrian attempts to clean up the site and destroy any incriminating evidence of covert activities following the Israeli bombing didn’t do the trick.  With the first set of analyses revealing evidence which points to a covert weapons production facility, the Syrian government didn’t want to provide more rope with which to hang itself.  So further IAEA visits were nixed.

Outside of the political wrangling surrounding the site and the Syrian government’s intent, a more mundane story runs in the background:  the evidence gathered by the brave band of IAEA inspectors and what the subsequent analyses revealed, despite Syria’s best efforts to scrub the place clean.  In a previous post, I provided some information about the men and women who take glamorous assignments for mediocre pay collecting samples at nuclear sites all over the world, from nuclear power plants to research reactors to fuel processing facilities.  And yes, even in the middle of the desert, in the Dayr Az Zawr region, 140 km from Iraqi border.  But what happens when the inspectors return to IAEA HQ?  They take their zip lock baggies, cotton swabs, swipes and sealed tins over to the Safeguards Analytical Laboratory, or SAL, located at the Seibersdorf complex, just outside of Vienna.

Housed under the same roof as two other IAEA labs (one of which is home to the world-renowned effort to eradicate the dreaded tse tse fly and screwworm) and a so-called maintenance section, the SAL provides analysis of nuclear material and environmental samples in its Nuclear and Clean labs. The SAL is part of a 14 lab network spread across 8 IAEA Member States which analyze safeguards samples to ensure that no Member State is doing anything it should not be doing under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA – the so-called safeguards accounting verification function.  The SAL also provides training for safeguards inspectors.  So, when the inspectors returned from Dair Alzour in June of 2008, they likely sent their samples to the SAL and some of the other labs in the network.  But, lest you think the results are rigged, all samples are provided to the labs blind.

For more on the SAL, here is a very useful video from the IAEA itself, complete with stern, exotic sounding British voiceover, telling the viewer of the “astonishingly sensitive equipment” used by the SAL in its work.  Impress your friends by using phrases like “titration”, “coulometry” and “thermal ionization mass spectrometry”.  Go on.  You know you want to.

The IAEA Safeguards Analytical Library

For more background on Syria’s nuclear facilities, check out NTI/Center for Nonproliferation Studies description here:

Syria Background



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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