Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk

 

A fun time was had by all yesterday morning at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC,  where I presented my research on AQ Khan and his fourth customer. (Well, perhaps there might have been a few stony faces out there.) George Perkovich moderated. I’m grateful for all of his compliments, starting with the invitation itself.

There was an overflow crowd. It was a rare treat to see a classroom’s worth of middies in attendance — plus, if my eyes did not deceive me, one or two cadets.

For those who couldn’t make it, the video is now online. The whole thing runs just under an hour and a half, including the Q&A. See if you can’t spot the cameo appearance by Pollack the Elder!

Update | Jan. 25. Global Security Newswire’s Rachel Oswald has covered the event. Some highlights on the policy front:

Any serious suspicions by other governments that New Delhi conducted nuclear weapons technology deals with the Khan ring could negatively impact India’s chances of concluding new atomic trade agreements with nations such as Japan and Australia or winning membership to the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group, [Pollack] asserted….


Indian purchases of nuclear weapons technology on the black market would not necessarily constitute a breach of any international commitments, Pollack said. New Delhi is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is still in the midst of an effort to join several other arms control regimes.

India’s reputation as country that does not engage in nuclear proliferation has been central to its negotiation of civilian atomic cooperation pacts with foreign governments that would otherwise have balked at trading with a nuclear-armed state that has not signed the NPT accord.

Should Japan or Australia put credence in the suspicions that India was Khan’s fourth customer, it could make the two countries — both strong proponents of nuclear nonproliferation — think twice about signing atomic pacts with India, Pollack said at the Carnegie event.

Tokyo and New Delhi are presently in advance negotiations for a trade accord that would allow Japanese civilian atomic technology to be exported to India (see GSN, Oct, 31, 2011). A key obstacle to date to the conclusion of a trade deal has been Japanese nonproliferation concerns.

In December, Australia’s ruling party decided to permit uranium export negotiations with India, a controversial decision that ended a decades-long Labor Party policy. In making the case for the reversal, the Australian government compared India’s sterling nonproliferation reputation to that of Pakistan (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2011).

It would be difficult for Canberra to uphold that distinction should it conclude that India was on the other side of some Khan network transactions, Pollack said. “Maybe the Australians should rethink their rationale.”

New Delhi is also seeking entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an elite 46-nation export control organization that promotes nonproliferation standards for atomic trade by all members (see GSN, July 18, 2011).

“If India has plants full of stolen centrifuge technology that it is not acknowledging, then that’s embarrassing” for the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s reputation, Pollack said, adding that the organization wants candidate countries to be “like-minded.”

He said the Indian Atomic Energy Department could put to rest suspicions of improper dealings with the Khan network by providing “credible disclosures about the origins of the uranium enrichment technology, if they care to deny it that is.”

“That’s what I’d like to see — some sort of representation from the Indians,” Pollack continued.

For an explanation of what I mean about the Australian rationale for dealing with India’s nuclear program but not Pakistan’s, see Defense Minister Stephen Smith’s remarks of December 8, 2011. In particular:

Pakistan does not have the same record [as India] so far as proliferation is concerned. There have been serious expressions of concern about proliferation in the past.

Indeed. But there is now, at a minimum, a cloud over the idea that India’s proliferation record is impeccable (setting aside the matter of CIRUS, of course).

One reason that Japan ought to be concerned about India’s potential connection to the Khan network is A.Q. Khan’s record in Japan. For decades, a Japanese trading company played an important role in supplying his network by acting as a straw buyer. Ring magnets, maraging steel, machine tools, and other supplies from Japan flowed into the network. Where did they all end up? Are any in India? If I were in the Japanese government, I would be acutely curious.

When discussing India’s bid for NSG membership, what was in the back of my mind was the American “food for thought” memorandum circulated to NSG member states last May. As it says:

Our interest in permitting the full membership of countries that have demonstrated responsible nonproliferation and export control practices and the ability and willingness to contribute substantially to global nonproliferation objectives is already reflected in the factors for consideration. Specifically, we refer to:

– “Be supportive of international efforts towards the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles,” and

– “Have in force a legally-based domestic export control system which gives effect to the commitment to act in accordance with the [NSG] guidelines.”

[snip]

…The factors for consideration… that address a candidate’s obligation to have made a legally binding non-proliferation commitment, and have the ability to supply NSG-listed items stem from the group’s desire for “like-minded” partners. Given the exchange of highly sensitive technical data, commercial information, and frankness of the work of the NSG, the group wanted to ensure that the issue of participation in the NSG was focused on candidates that shared the same goals and commitments to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Food for thought, indeed.

Update | Jan. 26. A transcript of the event has become available.

Also, now that I’ve repaired the graphics in my slide presentation, you can view it here.

A few words about the pictures. Slide 31 shows just a label. But you can find the entire graphic in this ISIS report from 2008.

Slide 32 shows a table from this 2010 IPFM blog post. What I’d planned to say about it was roughly this: In recent years, Srikumar Banerjee, who was then the Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and is now chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AECI), has made occasional remarks about the Indian centrifuge program. Based on these remarks, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, and MV Ramana of IPFM compared the pattern of India’s centrifuge development to that of Pakistan, which has been based on four different early URENCO designs.

This just goes to show you that my ideas about India as Khan’s fourth customer are perhaps neither quite so original nor quite so outré as some may imagine. On the other hand, it’s possible to read too much into Glaser et al.’s comparison. As I stated at this point during the presentation, India’s centrifuge program was indigenous in origin. Along the way, it appears to have incorporated foreign-origin design information and equipment. But it does not necessarily involve any exact copies of foreign centrifuge designs. Both the differences between the G-2 and the centrifuge design of ca. 2006 and the need to modify the UF6-resistant flow meters (see slide 23) suggest as much.

Lastly, I should provide credit for the nice image on the final slide, which I used as punctuation. This is a detail from the article illustration by Jeremy Enecio. It comes from his blog.

Update | Jan. 31. Carnegie has posted a nicely formatted transcript.

 
 

In a postscript of sorts to a recent debate in Australia over the supply of uranium to India, blogger and political scientist NAJ Taylor approvingly cites my recent article on the A.Q. Khan network and its fourth customer, and draws a rather strong conclusion:

In a large part, Pollack has assembled evidence that makes public what may already be known to investigators – although Pollack’s article was a public act which may prompt AQ Khan to be further, and more significantly, punished outside of the presidential amnesty which he was conditionally granted.

It also takes India’s involvement in the network to a level where – if it is to be believed – she must no longer be trusted.

Australia in particular, along with the United States and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, must review recent decisions to positively discriminate in order to permit nuclear dealings with India. This is because it would be unsatisfactory for India to have acquired its civilian and military nuclear capability through clandestine networks such as AQ Khan’s.

An yet even if there does remain some doubt, surely continued nuclear cooperation with a state that defiantly remains outside of the world’s peak nuclear nonproliferation instruments becomes untenable.

Read the whole thing.

Now, far be it from me to imagine that an article in a glossy magazine — an oh-so-not-safe-for-work glossy magazine! – could overturn India’s NSG exemption. (Cut to Jeffrey’s other imagined scenes.) But there is a moral to the story. When I set out to write, what I really had in mind was to tell a juicy detective story, full of psychological interest, which is why it appeared in Playboy and not in the Nonproliferation Review or the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as good and important as they are. Yet there are, inescapably, serious implications to the illicit transfer of sensitive nuclear technology.

Next Monday, January 23rd, I’ll be giving a talk on the A.Q. Khan network and its fourth customer with George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC. Not only is this event an opportunity to present evidence that space constraints kept out of the final, published version of the article and to bring the story up to date, but it will turn the conversation to the policy side.

The details are here. Registration is already closed, but if you’d still like to attend, try asking the organizers nicely.

 
 

A Friend of Blog thoughtfully collected these specimens in Pyongyang last week:

Kwangmyongsong-1

Kwangmyongsong-2

They are, of course, postage stamps commemorating the “successful” delivery into orbit of North Korea’s two satellites, Kwangmyongsong-1 (1998) and Kwangmyongsong-2 (2009).

Maybe next time they should try the USPS. It could use the additional business, and the results couldn’t be any worse.

(Sorry to have been away from the blog for so long. You’ll be hearing more from me soon. I guarantee you that.)

 
 

If you somehow missed the Asan Plenum back in June, here’s your chance to catch an encore performance. Of one presentation, anyway. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies is holding a breakfast roundtable featuring yours truly with the University of Pittsburgh’s Dennis Gormley. The subject is — you guessed it! — the rise and fall of North Korean missile exports. And since there was no Gormley commentary in Seoul, the remake stands to improve on the original.

Details below the jump. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011
9:00 – 11:00 am
The George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs Lindner Family Commons
1957 E Street, NW, 6th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20052

North Korea has been one of the world’s most active suppliers of ballistic missile systems since the mid-1980s, but the nature of its missile export business has changed significantly during this period, moving from sales of complete missiles to sales of production equipment and components, and, finally, to collaborative missile development. Speakers will review the evolution of this important transition and its disturbing implications for international efforts to control missile proliferation.

Please RSVP to NonproliferationReview@gmail.com

A complimentary continental breakfast and copies of the July issue of The Nonproliferation Review will be available at the event.

Update | Sept. 15. Audio and video will be posted at the event page at the CNS website.

Late update | Oct. 1. Video of the entire event (Pollack, Gormley, Q&A) is now available at the CNS event page. Here’s just the first piece:

 
 

Since giving a presentation on North Korea’s missile trade last month in Seoul at the Asan Plenum, I’ve had a couple of requests to explain the data sources more precisely. Much of the curiosity stems from an article in the English-language online edition of the Chosun Ilbo that attributed the data to “a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.” Well, not exactly. Good luck finding any report like that.

OK, then. Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about where the numbers come from. Seriously, you’ve been warned.

For aficionados of CRS, the headline of this post has already given half the game away. Richard F. Grimmett’s annual reports, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,” contain a heap of unique data on, well, what the title says. (The reports state that they contain “official, unclassified, background data from US government sources.”) And they’re my source for how many complete missile systems North Korea is known to have delivered abroad, to what regions, in what years.

(Prior to 1995, the reports were called “Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World.” Prior to 1991, they were called “Trends in Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World by Major Supplier.” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.)

Still, one thing the Grimmett reports won’t tell you is very much specifically about North Korea. Getting from Grimmett’s raw data to a reconstruction of North Korean missile deliveries took a heap of work, to use a technical term. The results appear as Table 1 in “Ballistic Trajectory: The Evolution of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Market,” which appears in the current issue of the Nonproliferation Review. You can download it free of charge.

The best things in life are free, they always say.

A Peek Inside the Sausage Factory

Ballistic missiles appear in the Grimmett reports as “surface-to-surface” missiles, or SSMs. (It appears that this category has yet to capture any cruise missiles, which either count as anti-ship missiles or have been excluded by virtue of being air-launched.) The first step was to figure out which figures in this category could be attributed to North Korea. Of the six categories of arms sellers — U.S., Russia, China, Major West European, All Other European, and All Others — just three are recorded as delivering SSMs: Russia, China, and All Others. Based on an extensive, iron-rich diet of missile-related readings, I’ve concluded that the “All Others” SSM numbers for 1987 through 2009 correspond to North Korea. Why 1987? See especially Joe Bermudez’s paper from 1999 on the history of the North Korean missile program.

The second step was processing Grimmett’s numbers. Each report covers the prior eight years, and contains tables with two four-year bins for arms deliveries to each region of the globe, e.g., 2002-2005 and 2006-2009. The earliest available period involving a sane definition of SSMs (i.e., one that excludes anti-tank missiles!) is 1984-1987, which enables reconstruction of figures starting from 1984.

Naturally, each bin repeats four years after its initial appearance. For example, there’s a 1991-1994 bin in the 1995 report, and the same thing again in the 1999 report. The numbers in these repeated bins aren’t fully consistent, indicating retrospective updates in the underlying database. I resolved these inconsistencies in favor of the more recent reports.

The third step was to convert the four-year bins into annual data. This started with exercises in logic. For example, there were (about) 90 SSMs delivered from “All Others” to the Near East in 1992-1995, (about) 30 SSMs in 1993-1996, and zero in 1994-1997. It’s a straightforward inference that there were about 60 deliveries in 1992 (the difference between 90 and 30), about 30 deliveries in 1993, and none thereafter through 1997.

Unfortunately, the data contained a few irresolvable inconsistencies. After struggling with alternative interpretations, I opted for whatever reconstruction tended to favor more recent reports while minimizing the overall “error,” again on the assumption that retrospective updates were responsible for the apparent problem. The differences between interpretations are small in any case, and the inconsistencies were few to begin with. But reader beware: because of the retrospective-updating phenomenon, recent numbers should be considered provisional. As subsequent Grimmett reports appear, I might get around to revising the table. Watch this space.

The Soviet Scud Question

To get a fuller picture of the global missile market, I carried out these steps not only for North Korea but also Russia and China. All three appear in the paper in Table 1. The Soviet figures contain an oddity: a staggering 1,660 SSM deliveries to “Asia” from 1989 to 1991. These figures correspond to the appearance of Scud missiles on the battlefield in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet ground troops in 1988. Did the Soviets really export that many missiles over such a short period?

In the end, I discounted these numbers, a choice supported by reports that “all functions connected with the security, transportation, storage and launch of Scud missiles [in Afghanistan] are handled by Soviet advisers.” In other words, they weren’t exports at all, but were missiles operated abroad by Red Army troops. A book co-authored by a retired ISI Brigadier, Mohammed Yousaf, makes essentially the same claim.

How long that situation persisted is less clear. An article by Bermudez in the February 1992 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review dated the arrival of the Scuds to October 1988, commenting that “there is little doubt that at this time that the ‘Scuds’ were under the direct operational control of the Soviets, who conducted all fire missions.” But it isn’t apparent whether unused missiles might have been left with the Afghan military after the abrupt withdrawal of the “advisers,” which Bermudez dates to November 1991. Regardless, this wasn’t the actual subject of the paper, so even including all 1,660 SSMs wouldn’t have changed any of its conclusions. Although it would interfere with claims like “40% of Missiles in Developing World Came from N.Korea.”

I’ll let Jeffrey tackle the question of whether any deliveries are missing from the China column.

On a Personal Note

Thanks to those who made it possible to do this research and to present it. Thanks also to the voters who picked my article as the winner of the first online reader survey at the Nonproliferation Review. However much other recent evidence might suggest otherwise, democracy clearly is the best system.

Update. See also “North Korea’s Shrinking Role in the Global Missile Market,” now live at 38North.org. It details recent interceptions of arms shipments from North Korea, discusses Burma’s apparent emergence as a new customer, and identifies new ballistic missile suppliers, actual or potential.

Late Update. Missile control: A multi-decade experiment in nonproliferation,” is now live at TheBulletin.org. It builds on this research to uncover what has worked to stop missile proliferation, what hasn’t, and what lessons could be drawn from that for related challenges.

Another Update | Sept. 1, 2011. FAS has just posted a complete run of the Grimmett reports from 1982 through 2010. Now you can roll your own version of Table 1, if you like.

 
 

At one point in a wide-ranging op-ed back in March, Frank von Hippel made the case for a global switchover to multinational consortia for uranium enrichment:

[It] would make it more difficult for any one country to divert the material to military ends. In fact, Urenco, the West’s most successful uranium enrichment enterprise, is already under the joint ownership of Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

The United States should help shape this industrial model into an international one, in which all enrichment plants are under multinational control. Doing so would make it more difficult for countries like Iran to justify building national enrichment plants that could be used to produce nuclear weapons materials.

The attractions of the proposal are clear enough, in principle – much broader access to state-of-the-art technology without the proliferation risks involved in national fuel cycles. But offering URENCO as an example of how to do it rings false.

Really, has there been a bigger disaster for nonproliferation? Brazil, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and probably others have been the unintended beneficiaries of URENCO centrifuge technology. Perhaps Dutch and German engineers needed their own ISTC years before it was established for the benefit of Russian scientists.

And lest you think it’s just a URENCO problem, consider where North Korea got its reprocessing technology: the defunct Eurochemic consortium based in Belgium. That seems less like a URENCO-style case of massive and recurring intellectual property theft, and more like a giveaway. According to Mark Hibbs in the Feb. 28, 1994 issue of NuclearFuel,

As early as 1970, in open IAEA publications and in so-called external technical reports (ETR), Eurochemic made public schematic blueprints for plant construction, flow charts for process engineering, and operations results. ‘There was no secret about this work,’ an official at KFK [the Nuclear Research Center at Karlsruhe] said.”

The multinational approach remains an attractive idea, on paper. But work remains to be done to establish why it has gone so wrong in the past, and what could be done to prevent similar episodes in the future.

 
 

No one knows where Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster will end. The current signs are ominous. We can only hope that the spent-fuel ponds can be prevented from boiling off. In the meantime, we can try to draw out some of the implications of the event. I’ve attempted that in my latest Bulletin column.

The first and simplest point is that Fukushima is both the first nuclear disaster resulting from a natural disaster and the first serious failure of multiple reactors at once. These observations are related. Every other serious event – Windscale, TMI, Chernobyl, etc. – was a one-off caused by internal failures of some sort. What’s happening in Japan isn’t the same at all; this is a natural disaster that has cascaded into a hydra-headed technological disaster.

A compound event isn’t so unusual in itself, although we sometimes don’t fully register them, preferring for some reason to emphasize the “natural” part of what are really natural-technological disasters. Just to pick one example: the inundation of a major city in 2005 gets shorthanded as “Hurricane Katrina,” and not as “The Great New Orleans Multi-Point Levy Failure.”

All Together Now

Group failures are unlikely to happen by sheer chance. Lightning rarely hits two houses next to each other on the same night. It’s more likely that a single wildfire will engulf both of them. This phenomenon is known to statisticians as “tail dependence.” This paper defines tail dependence as “the tendency of dependence between two random variables to concentrate in the extreme values… such that severe losses are more likely to happen together.”

In other words, there are situations that cause everything to crash at once. As the homely proverb has it, “It never rains but it pours.” Anyone living in the PEPCO service area will understand.

That’s a real problem for nuclear power that has perhaps not been adequately recognized. Extreme events may be rare in any given spot, but from a global and multi-decade perspective, they’re more common. Disasters will happen. As a result, some will argue that nuclear power should be abandoned; others will argue that we can live with the risks. But these are the same arguments as ever, really. Reactors will continue to be built, but existing levels of safety won’t suffice.

Previous experience may teach us something about multi-decade efforts to manage catastrophic risks. Insurance companies have known since the 19th century not to insure properties next door to each other, and not to write too many policies in any single city (back in the days before asbestos insulation, when entire cities could and did burn up). It’s reasonable to ask now whether the next generation of nuclear power plants should be quite so bunched up, where the same natural disaster can clobber several of them at once.

Update | March 25, 2011. In the Washington Post, David Nakamura and Chico Harlan describe the vain efforts of seismologist Yukinobu Okamura to get NISA and TEPCO to understand the implications of the year 869 earthquake discussed in my latest Bulletin column and in the comments here.

 
 

After a few years of activity, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s probe of Syria’s nuclear activities is sputtering to a halt. To their credit, even after the being denied access to sites apparently linked to the concealed reactor destroyed by the Israeli Air Force – and having had very little access to the former reactor site itself – safeguards inspectors have still managed to unearth undeclared nuclear imports and experiments. But that run of success now appears to have ended.

The international investigation has suffered from two burdens: first, a late start, and second, the limits of the IAEA’s authority in Syria. Despite extensive news reports of the destruction of a hidden reactor in September 2007, the IAEA failed to act until April 2008, on the dubious grounds that no member state had shared its suspicions until then. In the intervening time, Syria was able to remove or bury the rubble. The inspectors also sought access to three allegedly related locations, but were denied on the irrelevant grounds that these were military facilities. In the meantime, Syria had the opportunity to sanitize these sites as well.

Phosphate, Irradiate, Obfuscate

Only where the inspectors have had regular access have they managed to unravel Syria’s cover stories. Environmental samples taken in August 2008 at a safeguarded nuclear research site in Damascus, the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR), revealed traces of uranium in hot cells. After the IAEA rejected Syria’s initial explanations, the Syrians admitted to having imported small amounts of previously undeclared uranyl nitrate, as well as having introduced domestically produced yellowcake into the facility. When the IAEA conducted an inventory at MNSR in March 2010, the Syrians also acknowledged having converted yellowcake to uranyl nitrate and undertaken irradiation experiments, all without informing the IAEA as required by Syria’s nuclear safeguards agreement. According to the Syrian side, the yellowcake came from a phosphate purification facility near the city of Homs, built by a Swedish engineering firm as an IAEA-sponsored Technical Cooperation project.

At last report, the IAEA believes that other undeclared uranium conversion experiments have taken place in Syria, and that Syria has yet to declare its entire uranium stockpile. Syria has refused the IAEA’s request to visit the Homs facility.

Once Bitten

The IAEA is unlikely to make additional headway under its present authorities in Syria. These do not include an Additional Protocol, which would afford inspectors wide-ranging access. Although Director-General Amano has declined to rule it out, the IAEA looks reluctant to use even its existing special-inspection authority. Invoking a special inspection backfired with the North Koreans almost two decades ago, so it’s perhaps understandable if the IAEA has become gun-shy.

Instead of taking a confrontational approach, the IAEA concluded a “plan of action” with Damascus on September 3, 2010 to resolve certain “inconsistencies” between Syrian statements and IAEA findings – an approach reminiscent of the ill-fated Iranian work plan of 2007. So far, it’s been more plan than action. On November 18, Amano sent a letter directly to the Syrian Foreign Minister urging full cooperation. (Previous correspondence, as best as I can tell, went to the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria.) The only reply seems to have been the remarks of President Bashar al-Asad, who told an interviewer that Syria will never sign an Additional Protocol.

Start Spreading the News

The Syrian case now lumbers on to its destination. David Crawford of Wall Street Journal has reported what many of us had suspected would soon be coming: the IAEA is preparing to draw conclusions about Syria’s noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. Subject to a vote of the Board of Governors, which could take place as soon as next month, Syria’s nuclear program is poised to land on the docket of the UN Security Council.

Recent and related: Syria’s Tibnah Salt Mine Revisited, and Did Syria Admit to Bio-Weapons?

Update | March 7, 2011. The IAEA’s latest Syria report conveys no sense whatsoever that the Director-General is pushing for a decision on noncompliance, so I’d have to say that Crawford’s story was… premature. Andreas Persbo has posted an analysis of the special inspection power and how its invocation might lead to a noncompliance finding. Mark Hibbs reports that the lack of urgency surrounding Syria’s case is owed to other priorities, particularly a hope that Syria might soon commence peace talks with Israel.

Stay tuned.

 
 

One of the more important questions about Syria’s nuclear program has got to be, Just where is it, anyway? Those of us who were initially skeptical of reports that the Dayr al-Zawr facility had been a reactor could point to the almost complete absence of ancillary buildings at the site. Where would fresh fuel be produced and stored? Where would spent fuel go? What about reprocessing facilities? And waste sites? And so on.  So it caught many eyes when GOV/2008/60, the IAEA’s first safeguards report on Syria, mentioned “three other locations alleged by some Member States to be of relevance” where “landscaping activities and the removal of large containers took place shortly after the Agency’s request for access.”

On December 1, David Albright and Paul Brannan of ISIS published a short report mentioning locations near Masyaf and Iskandariya, both in the vicinity of Hama, and Marj as-Sultan, close to Damascus. The authors also mention a fourth site that has attracted the IAEA’s interest. They don’t name it, but we can make an educated guess: the Tibnah (or Tibni) salt mine at 35° 33′ 07″N, 39° 48′ 38″E, about 17 km south of the former reactor site. (The mine appears in the overhead view to the right.)

As far as I’m aware, Andreas Persbo made the first public mention of Tibnah in connection with the reactor back in October 2008. Andreas observed that the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission had undertaken a “preliminary report” on whether the mine could be used to store radioactive waste, which would seem to make it a legitimate object of interest for nuclear safeguards. But it has yet to appear in any of the IAEA’s several reports on Syria.

Back to the Salt Mine

Lately, though, Tibnah has begun to creep back into view. In an October 2010 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley added a handful of pieces to the puzzle. The mine, he reports, is operated by the General Company for Phosphate and Mines (GECOPHAM), the same state-owned enterprise that operates the Homs Phosphate Fertilizer Plant, which removes uranium impurities from phosphates… thereby also producing yellowcake. He also cites the study mentioned previously by Persbo.

The document, titled, “Preliminary Report on General Setting of Tibni-Salt Mine for an Interim and Final Storage of Radioactive Waste in Syria,” happens to be in the IAEA’s collection. The abstract can be found online. The study was undertaken from May 1997 to May 1998. (The Principal Investigator was named as Mohssen Alimoussa of the Syrian Atomic Energy Agency; someone with the same name represented Syria’s oil ministry in this 2004 international meeting on environmental statistics.) The purpose envisioned for the site was described as “international radioactive waste disposal.”

As Kelley observes, the Tibnah study coincides with the initiation of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation, which the U.S. intelligence community dates to 1997. Still more striking is the sharp drop in salt production in 2007, as seen in data available through 2008 from the U.S. Geological Survey. But at some time between 2004 and 2008, satellite photos show an expansion of activities at the site, not a contraction. Kelley suggests that the part of the mine may have been “pressed into service” to store debris from the reactor, thus becoming unavailable for salt production.

Even if not named by ISIS, Tibnah has become higher-profile lately. Most recently, it’s garnered a mention in the mass media (see the December 2 article about Syria and the IAEA by Paul-Anton Krueger in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung). Given the waste-disposal study submitted to the IAEA, not to mention the lack of a plausible military connection to an active salt mine — the excuse used by the Syrians to deny the IAEA access to the other three sites — there ought to be growing pressure on Damascus to grant access.

Update, Dec. 13, 7:26 pm. Based on a number of hints and suggestions received offline, it’s apparent that Tibnah is not the fourth site of interest to the IAEA.

 
 

Back on Nov. 28, Sen. Jon Kyl told Meet the Press that considerable time would be necessary to debate New START and offer multiple amendments to the resolution of ratification, a process that would “probably take at least two weeks.” John Isaacs now points out that 22 of Kyl’s Republican colleagues, led by Sen. John Ensign and Sen. Jim DeMint, have dispatched a letter to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bearing a similar message: time for “numerous amendments” will be needed — time that won’t be available before the end of the year.

In response to these declarations, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has threatened to counter with amendments of his own. But the point of announcing an intention to offer “numerous” amendments isn’t to change the treaty; it’s to protest bringing the treaty to the floor for debate in the first place. Perhaps it’s also a way of justifying a “no” vote on grounds of senatorial prerogative rather than (or in addition to) substance. But with New START gathering steam — especially since the appearance of the Dec. 2 op-ed by five Republican former Secretaries of State in the Washington Post – it’s likely to come to the floor regardless.

Star Wars Amendment: The Empire Strikes Back

But there presumably will be a few amendments offered in the time available. Going by the debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it’s possible that Sen. DeMint will reintroduce his missile defense amendment, which has been included in watered-down form in the resolution of ratification. DeMint later sought to incorporate his preferred missile defense language into the defense authorization bill, too. He seeks to require the rapid deployment of “an effective and layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States and its allies against all ballistic missile attacks,” i.e., including those from Russia.

As a policy, this would serve to antagonize Russia without bringing a single day closer the time that missile defenses could counteract Russia’s strategic forces. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice correctly observes in her own op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the Russian nuclear arsenal “is far too sophisticated and large to be degraded by our missile defenses.”

In other respects, Rice’s message seems slightly off. Apparently calling for an amendment herself, she insists that the Senate “must make absolutely clear that in ratifying this treaty, the U.S. is not re-establishing the Cold War link between offensive forces and missile defenses.” In particular, she points to the treaty’s preamble and a Russian unilateral statement as potentially troublesome. But the resolution of ratification already does what Rice proposes, declaring that the treaty does not “limit in any way, and shall not be interpreted as limiting,” current or future defenses. It’s not clear what more she thinks might be necessary. Regardless, compared to some, Rice seems almost statesmanlike at the moment.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps it’s unreasonable or just plain naive to say so, but nuclear arms control ought to be above partisan politics, personal (dis)likes, ideological knee-jerks, or idle games of positioning. It’s a truism, but the fate of nations rests on how we handle the Bomb.

For further discussion, see my latest column in the Bulletin: The high stakes of New START.