Where Did The U Metal Come From?

A “short while ago”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/2001/hibbs-on-syria-u-traces, we all learned some new stuff from Mark Hibbs about the uranium oxide particles found in Syria. Long story short, the IAEA has reason to believe they were uranium metal “converted” into oxide by… “some event”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1038934.html that divided the uranium into fine particles, causing it to scatter and oxidize.

Now let’s go further and assume that this uranium was, prior to its untimely fine division, fuel for a Yongbyon-type Magnox reactor. This raises an obvious question: Where did it come from?

Well, I think we can rule out “Lancashire”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1865/more-than-you-wanted-to-know-about-magnox. Instinctively, most of us would say, it came from the Yongbyon fuel fabrication complex in North Korea. It might also have come from a duplicate facility in Syria, although this assumes that quite a lot of stuff could have been built, supplied, and operated undetected.

Ask Dr. Science

The natural place to start is with “SIGINT”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1866/just-a-little-bit-more-information. In February 2008, according to Dr. Siegfried “Sig” Hecker, North Korea had under a quarter of a load of fuel rods — apparently for the infamous 5 MWe reactor that has produced all or essentially all of North Korea’s plutonium — and a full load of uncladded fuel rods for the unfinished 50 MWe reactor.

Is that everything that was supposed to be there? As it turns out, Hibbs has already looked into this question. He asked Hecker and wrote up his answer in the Dec. 18, 2008 issue of _Nucleonics Week_.

None of the safeguarded fresh uranium fuel produced by North Korea at its Yongbyon nuclear research center for two of its own reactors was diverted to an alleged clandestine reactor project in Syria, a US expert said December 15.

Siegfried Hecker, a director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that the fuel, which had been declared to the IAEA, was still at the center when he visited it in February.

OK. So what about the period after the collapse of the Agreed Framework and before the return of inspectors? Is it possible that the complex was put back into operation, making more fuel?

Let’s go back to Hecker’s “Feb. 2008 trip report”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1866/just-a-little-bit-more-information:

bq. The front end of fuel fabrication (Building 1) had been operating making uranium dioxide (UO2) from uranium ore concentrate right up to the time the facility was shut down on July 15, 2007. The back end was operational with seven conversion furnaces, two casting furnaces, and eight machining lathes. 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 throughput potential. It was not put into full operation by the time of the shutdown on July 15.

It sounds as if A) the complex had only limited capacity during the dark period between 2002 and 2007, but B) the North Koreans were operating some (perhaps all) of the parts that worked, and C) they made efforts to reconstitute what wasn’t working (fluorination) on an _ad hoc_ basis. This element was not “put into full operation,” but that doesn’t mean that it produced nothing, either.

How much fresh fuel could these arrangements have created? Enough for the “test assembly” that one of Hibbs’s sources suggests Syria might have had at the reactor? It’s not really clear, but seems possible. Either way, it raises the question of where the Syrians expected to get a full load of fresh fuel in 2007, when Yongbyon was once again under safeguards. And no, I’m not even going to start speculating about reprocessing facilities.

Anybody Around Here Read Korean?

One way to know what happened at Yongbyon during the dark years would be to scrutinize the operating records of the fuel fabrication complex. There are forensic tests to establish the genuineness of such documents. But according to (you guessed it!) Mark Hibbs in the Jan. 12, 2009 issue of _NuclearFuel,_ these records were not among those provided by North Korea to the United States.

All together now: _Hmmmm._

So, it’s an open question. Any enterprising journalists out there want to take a stab at this one?

Just for fun: Hibbs quotes a “senior UN official” in the Feb. 23, 2009 issue of _NuclearFuel_ as saying that the particles “looked like UO2,” not other oxides. Also, a “Western safeguards official” said that — along with uranium oxide and graphite — there was lots of aluminum and magnesium in the IAEA samples from al-Kibar. That’s what Magnox fuel cladding is made of. But it might have come from the soil, too, right?

One thing is clear, at least: the Syrians won’t be letting the IAEA back in anytime soon.

After all that, you deserve a “musical bonus”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7xmSYS2uM0. Knock yourself out.

9 thoughts on “Where Did The U Metal Come From?

  1. Allen Thomson

    Can we rule out indigenous production of the needed amount of uranium (a few dozen tonnes as I understand it) in Syria? I notice in Google Earth that the phosphate purification facility on Lake Qattina near Homs doubled from its original size sometime prior to July 2003 — compare the 2003 Google Earth image with the picture in http://www.meab-mx.se/en/service_turnkey_syrien.htm

  2. Josh

    I haven’t looked at the GE image yet, but that website is pretty remarkable in its own right.

    The region is quite uranium-poor. Avner Cohen’s book on the Israeli nuclear program describes the indigenous development of a technique to extract small amounts of uranium from phosphates. This activity doesn’t sound so different, even if the emphasis is being placed on purification of the phosphates.

  3. Allen Thomson

    The building shown in the MEAB picture is at 34.6515 N, 36.6254 E in Google Earth. The 2003 satellite picture shows an apparently identical building adjacent to it that isn’t in the MEAB image.

  4. Yossi

    This is all very interesting and I have to think about it some more.

    * I agree it’s possible that Syria had a military nuclear program started when NK could supply fuel and reprocessing support, then Western supervision tightened and NK couldn’t deliver, leaving Syria in a difficult position. In such a case why hurry and build the pump station?

    * What is the difference between a “test assembly” fuel load and a “full load of fresh fuel”? Can you test a reactor with significantly less fuel than the working load?

    * According to Hecker, NK fuel is Uranium metal with 0.5% Aluminum, not “lots of Aluminum”. Magnox cladding is made of Magnesium and Zirconium but the latter is not mentioned as found. Maybe Zirconium can be omitted if you don’t care about corrosion? In any case why the IAEA didn’t talk about the Graphite, Aluminum and Magnesium found or is it my memory failing me? If not, a kind of a conspiracy theory involving the IAEA may be implied here. By the way, some people think that the USIC explanation for this case qualifies as a conspiracy theory.

    * The IAEA ruled out an ordinary Uranium penetrating munition. They didn’t rule out a DIME weapon made of natural Uranium. If the Uranium traces were pure UO2 some more research is needed to find if the DIME hypothesis is still viable. In temperatures that are high enough to create spherical droplets maybe you would expect U3O8 and not UO2?

    Thanks for the new info!

  5. Josh

    As I understand it from reading the stories cited here, a test assembly is what it sounds like — a single fuel assembly. It’s placed into a channel to make sure that it fits. Of course, such a test assembly could just as easily be a dummy, without actual fuel in it, couldn’t it?

    “Lots of aluminum” is my paraphrase. The IAEA has not formally reported on the graphite find or the aluminum and magnesium find; they’ve simply leaked out. According to the reports I’ve read, the IAEA has yet to determine the purity of the graphite, and doesn’t want to say anything until it does. And Hibbs indicates that the IAEA is not sure if the aluminum and magnesium traces aren’t, in fact, from the soil.

    As far as conventional munitions go, I simply cannot imagine why NU would be used instead of DU. That strikes me as a real reach.

  6. Yossi

    Josh, thanks!

    If a “test assembly” is just one fuel assembly (or a dummy) then the source of all Uranium traces found is relatively small. Interesting.

    We know from IAEA leaks that the Uranium is in the form of spherical particles but we don’t know how accurately spherical they are. In a melting/spraying scenario you would expect exact spheres as the surface tension is probably much stronger than aerodynamic forces. In a corrosion scenario you would expect that jagged shards will become more round. Note that the Uranium traces are supposed to be collected after about half a year including a rainy winter. This seems enough time for the corrosion to get to the core if the size is on the order of microns. The oxide is softer and has higher volume than the metal so you would expect everything to crack, assisting the corrosion. It requires further study but corrosion could possibly produce UO2 particles having a roughly spherical shape. Choosing the correct scenario should be the first task.

    Why use NU instead of DU in munitions? A country with a significant enrichment industry has a lot of cheap DU and would probably use it as it’s better from a public relations viewpoint. Israel is said to get its US made DIME munitions only after the Syrian strike. It may have experimented with DIME by itself before (it’s relatively easy). Having no significant enrichment program and less worries about its public image it probably used NU. This is only a guess but it’s not unreasonable. Of course one can hypothesize it was the Syrians that were experimenting with DIME using Uranium they produced themselves. Anyway, the important question is whether a successfully exploded DIME would produce U3O8 instead of UO2.

    What I’m trying to say is that we are far from having evidence that will be accepted in any court. Combined with the US administration strange silence and objections raised in the attached link I’m not convinced the USIC story is correct.

  7. Josh

    Those are interesting comments on the shapes of the particles, but I’m not in a position to assess them. In general, it appears that little is known empirically about the behavior of U particles under the sorts of conditions we are discussing. Reasonable assumptions can be made. But now, I’m afraid that I’ve exhausted my knowledge of the subject.

    As for the use of NU in weapons, that strikes me as a real stretch.

    First, there’s no evidence that the weapons you are postulating actually existed.

    Second, there certainly have been claims over the years that the IDF has DU-based armor-piercing rounds, so the idea that the IDF did not have ready access to DU is questionable. The material has a number of commercial applications and is not, to my knowledge, generally subject to export controls, unless used as shielding for a radioactive source.

    Third, I guess I just have a very hard time imagining that Israel would use whatever little NU it could get it hands on in this sort of an application. It makes no sense. Sorry.

  8. Yossi

    There are empirical relations for Uranium corrosion. I based my opinion on an approximate calculation made using un-rigorously one of them published by John M. Haschke from Los Alamos.

    As an Israeli I find the American protectiveness towards us a bit funny. There is some controversy about Israeli U weapons and I guess we could get a few hundred kilos of NU without much difficulty.


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