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Syria's Nuclear Case

Posted by Jill Marie Parillo and Halle Schweikert on July 18, 2008

In the next two months, the nuclear watch dog agency in Vienna will attempt to unveil details about the Syrian reactor bombed by Israel last year. Syria claims it intended to build a purely peaceful nuclear program to meet rising energy needs, but the United States and Israel maintain that Syria intended to build bombs.

The type of Magnox reactor Syria constructed to commence its program uses natural uranium and produces more plutonium than the majority of reactors used worldwide for energy production. The reactor type is still used in two commercial reactors in the United Kingdom, where the design originated. This type of reactor is no longer seen as useful compared to newer models and will be obsolete when the last UK reactor goes offline in 2010. This reactor type was also used in North Korea to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

According to the safeguard agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Syria, Syria is obliged to notify the international community via the IAEA of any plans to build a nuclear reactor, but it did not do so when building the Magnox reactor. Instead, with the assistance of North Korea, Syria built the nuclear reactor in secret, which caused much speculation over Syria's true intentions. After a recent visit by the IAEA to the bombed reactor site at al-Kibar, the Agency announced that it will produce a report on the site before the next IAEA Board Meeting in September 2008.

If the IAEA report gives more weight to US and Israeli allegations, Syria may sight Israel's nuclear threat as a motivator to build its own nuclear deterrent. "Formally at war with Israel and unable to match its nuclear-weapons programme, Syria spares no effort in demanding that Israel give up its weapons and sign the NPT," stated the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in a recent comprehensive report on nuclear programs in the Middle East.1 Starting in 1994, Syria asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a step towards a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, but Israel repeatedly refuses such requests.

A rise in energy demand is one plausible reason Syria sites for building a nuclear energy capability. "Its oil reserves are drying up quickly, with production dropping about 10% a year...the sharp reduction in oil-export earnings threatens to produce a foreign exchange deficit and seriously reduce economic growth, which has relied heavily on oil sales," states the IISS report.2 Syria is cooperating with the IAEA and denies any intention for making nuclear weapons. Bashar Jaafari, Syria's UN Ambassador, recently told reporters that Syria has "nothing to hide."3 Syria is one of many non-nuclear weapon states which are seeking to obtain domestic nuclear technology in spite of the growing international pressure to abandon the pursuit of sensitive fuel cycle technology.

If the IAEA report gives weight to Syria's assertions and Syria succeeds in building a nuclear energy capability, the nation might import nuclear fuel for its reactor from Argentina, Iran, India or Russia. In the past, Syria's financial difficulties halted any prospective deals with Russia. Iran and Syria agreed to create a $1 billion gas-pipeline deal, although the deal is now being reconsidered due to Syria's decline in oil production. Argentina, with a growing interest in becoming a nuclear fuel supplier on the international market, is another potential supplier for Syria. In 1990, the United States deterred Argentina from following through with a proposed sale of nuclear reactor facilities to Syria.

Although Syria built a reactor in clandestine, it must be allowed to make its case for nuclear energy. The nation began creation of a nuclear program in clandestine and should face some international punishment for doing so. However, international reaction to Syria's clandestine work must take into consideration that Syria did so under threat from its nuclear neighbor and was already dealt a lot of airstrikes. The international community is set to face great difficulty in broadening rules and regulations over sensitive nuclear technology, if states outside the NPT regime continue to use force to enforce their own de-facto rules on the regime. Furthermore, new regulations will fail, as previous ones did, if they do not take into account the needs and concerns of all NPT members.

1 "Syria: A would be proliferator," Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East, In the Shadow of Iran, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 20, 2008. Available at [http://www.iiss.org.uk/publications/strategic-dossiers/nuclear-programmes-in-the-middle-east-in-the-shadow-of-iran/]
2 Ibid. pg 78.
3 "Syria hesitant to grant IAEA access: diplomats," Reuters, May 23, 2008. Available at [http://www.reuters.com/article/newsMaps/idUSL2340597020080523]

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