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.
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.
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.