From Pyongyang with Love
THE NEWS THAT North Korea was assisting Syria with a nuclear power plant on the Euphrates—indeed that the Syrian plant, before Israel bombed it into nonexistence last September, appeared to be a near replica of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor—is bad news not only for efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but for being able to keep planned “peaceful” nuclear projects in the Middle East from becoming the next set of bombing targets.
Among the more disquieting aspects of Syria’s nuclear plant and Israel’s bombing of it is how U.S. intelligence officials have quietly suggested that the plant might have been used for “peaceful” purposes. As American intelligence officials explained to the U.S. Congress and the press on April 24, they had “high confidence” that “the intention was to produce plutonium” but only “low confidence” that the plutonium was meant for weapons development.” They reached this conclusion because they could find no evidence of any Syrian effort to build a reprocessing plant, a facility critical to stripping out the plutonium from spent reactor fuel. As one unidentified Bush administration official “familiar with these deliberations” explained, there simply is “uncertainty” about whether the Syrian reactor was “designed” solely to produce peaceful nuclear power or also was meant to make plutonium for bombs
What’s worrisome here isn’t that this conclusion is unquestionably right—it’s not—but rather that it’s virtually impossible to disprove. Such Janus-like ambiguity in what most in Washington now see as a fairly clear case of Syrian nuclear-weapons intent certainly poses immense policy implications for U.S. efforts (along with the efforts of France and Russia) to blanket the Middle East with “peaceful” nuclear reactors. Presumably, the only way to prevent these machines from making nuclear weapons is to be on the ready to bomb them too.
Sound shrill? Not if you recount the number of strikes that have already been made against nuclear reactors in the Middle East. In 1980, at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran bombed and slightly damaged the large “civilian” Osiraq reactor. A year later, Israel finished the job. The reactor was under routine inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). From 1985 through 1988, Iraq bombed Iran’s “peaceful” IAEA-safeguard power reactor at Bushehr on no fewer than seven separate occasions. Not long after, in 1991, the U.S. bombed the Osiraq nuclear site again and Saddam retaliated by firing a Scud—which missed—against Israel’s reactor at Dimona (a plant Israeli officials still say Israel is operating to produce electricity). Today, Iran’s, Israel’s, and Algeria’s largest “peaceful” facilities are ringed with heavy air defenses.
If reactors, such as North Korea’s Yongbyon machine, which have clearly been used to make plutonium for bombs, can be claimed to be peaceful (along with their clones in Syria), why wouldn’t reactors said to be peaceful just as easily be used to make bombs? Why indeed. The IAEA routinely inspects even the most “proliferation-resistant” reactors and with cause: Any large reactor produces a significant amount of bomb-usable plutonium and, in the case of most power reactors, the fresh fuel could be used to accelerate efforts to make weapons-grade uranium dramatically.
This is not just speculation: Attempts to extract plutonium from safeguarded nuclear programs actually were made in the case of Taiwan and South Korea 40 years ago. No one at the IAEA knew about these countries’ plans to reprocess the spent fuel nor would we had it not been for lucky human intelligence. The IAEA, meanwhile, has admitted that its inspection cameras can and have been blacked out long enough for nuclear fuel to be diverted from inspected reactor sites. The IAEA also still cannot find covert reprocessing or enrichment plants early or reliably enough to block possible bomb making. Nor has the U.S. done all that well (we’ve missed illicit nuclear activities not only in Syria but Algeria, North Korea, Iran, India, Iraq and Israel).
This is why so many Hawks now distrust Foggy Bottom. Further compromises with Pyongyang, they argue, should end until it comes clean not only because that’s what it promised to do, but because we know that without Pyongyang’s full cooperation, there is no technical way to find their possible covert nuclear fuel making facilities or to effectively block what they might be exporting.
Still, North Korea, though, is spilt nuclear milk. A state moving from having zero nuclear weapons to just one bomb, after all, is far more destabilizing than one whose arsenal might grow from three to 12. In contrast, the half-dozen or more large reactors the U.S., France and Russia are proposing to help Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt build are no more than paper studies. Before we proceed to build, we would do well, then, to consider what the Syrian reactor bombing clearly suggests: Unless there is an obvious, immediate economic requirement to proceed, there is an even clearer security imperative to hold off.
Here, the persistent abundance of cheap, relatively clean natural gas in the region suggests that theirs is no urgency. On the other hand, our inability to detect illicit nuclear activities early on, the inadequacy of safeguards against military diversions, and the feckless character of our diplomatic enforcement of the Nonproliferation Treaty all tell us that if we do build more nuclear plants in Middle East, the Syrian reactor bombing is only likely be one of many more to come.