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Experience With Syria Exemplifies Challenge That Detection Presents

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Syria went to extraordinary lengths to conceal its undeclared construction of a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor from spies in the sky and on the ground in recent years, according to a draft report by independent nuclear experts briefed by Bush administration officials.

The effectiveness of the camouflage effort raises new doubts about the prospects for certain detection of future clandestine nuclear weapons-related activities, the Institute for Science and International Security concluded in its report on the Syrian facility. "This case serves as a sobering reminder of the difficulty of identifying secret nuclear activities," the report said.

U.S. intelligence officials last month released images of the Syrian facility before it was bombed by Israel last September and bulldozed by the Syrian government once the raid became public. U.S. and Israeli officials have said the facility was a nearly completed nuclear reactor built with North Korean help and fitted with a false roof and walls that altered its shape when viewed from above.

According to the ISIS report to be released this week, the fake roof was just the start. Syrian engineers went to "astonishing lengths" to hide cooling and ventilation systems, power lines and other features that normally are telltale signs of a nuclear reactor, authors David Albright and Paul Brannan wrote.

For example, the main building appears small and shallow from the air, but it was evidently built over large underground chambers -- tens of meters in depth -- that were large enough to house the nuclear reactor, as well as a reserve water-storage tank and pools for spent fuel rods, the report said.

An extensive network of electrical lines appears to have been buried in trenches. Traditional water-cooling towers were replaced with an elaborate underground system that discharged into the Euphrates River. And, instead of using smokestack-like ventilation towers prominent at many reactor sites, the ventilation system appears to have been built along the walls of the building, with louver openings not visible from the air, the authors contended.

The ISIS report noted that early skepticism that Syria was building a reactor there was based partly on the observable absence of revealing features. "The current domestic and international capabilities to detect nuclear facilities and activities are not adequate to prevent more surprises in the future," the report warned.

Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said his conclusions were based not only on photographs of the Syrian site but also on interviews with government officials who closely monitored the facility while it was under construction.

Syria has repeatedly denied that the Al Kibar facility was a reactor. Its ambassador, Imad Moustapha, at a April 25 news conference in Washington described the allegations as "absurd, preposterous stories." "This administration has a proven record of falsifying and fabricating stories about weapons of mass destruction," he said.

On Wednesday, International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohammed Elbaradei said his organization should be able to report in coming weeks whether the facility was an undeclared nuclear reactor.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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