Is the nuclear facilty in Syria a textile factory?

Nov 05, 2011 12:00 AM

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, strongly denied Western media allegations of his links with the Syrian nuclear weapon program. Khan categorically denied any role in Syrian nuclear program saying the reports in this regard "are totally baseless having no authenticity at all".
"United States wants to treat Syria the same way it has dealt with Iraq and Libya because these two countries had been supporting Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel," Khan said.

He added that the US wanted to prepare grounds for taking action against Syria.
"The world, including the Pakistan army, believes that Pakistan cannot be blamed for any such accusation based on media reports," he said.

After a four-year search for hidden atomic facilities in Syria, UN officials appeared to have finally struck gold: News reports linked a large factory in eastern Syria to a suspected clandestine effort to spin uranium gas into fuel for nuclear bombs. News reports on the 1st of November said that satellite images have provided UN investigators with fresh evidence that the Syrian government once worked with A.Q. Khan, the world's most prolific nuclear weapons merchant.
The images reveal that a complex in northwest Syria appears to match Khan's designs for a uranium enrichment plant that were sold to Muammar Gaddafi's government in Libya, officials told.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency also has obtained correspondence between Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who proposed scientific cooperation and a visit to Khan's laboratories following Pakistan's successful nuclear test in 1998.
Investigators don't believe Syria was ever close to building a nuclear bomb and there is no evidence it still has a secret program. The complex, in the city of Al-Hasakah, now appears to be used as a cotton-spinning plant.

Reports added, “But the unlikely coincidence in design suggests Syria may have been pursuing two routes to an atomic bomb: uranium as well as plutonium. IAEA investigators had already said they believe that a Syrian site bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was a plutonium production reactor”.
This Aug. 14, 2011, satellite image provided by Geo Eye, shows a facility in Al-Hasakah, Syria. Investigators at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency have asked Syria about this complex, in the centre of the image, in the country's north-western city of Al-Hasakah because they believe it closely matches plans for a uranium enrichment plant sold by the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb A.Q. Khan.

For years, there has been speculation about ties between Khan and the Syrian government. Though he later recanted, Khan had publicly confessed to selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, but he has never spoken of Syria. Investigators have suspected that he had other clients he had not revealed.
Details of the Syria-Khan connection were provided by a senior diplomat with knowledge of IAEA investigations and a former UN investigator.

But after further probing by private researchers, Syria’s mystery plant is looking far less mysterious. A new report concludes that the facility and its thousands of fast-spinning machines were intended to make not uranium, but cloth -- a very ordinary cotton-polyester.
“It is, and always has been, a textile factory,” said one of the researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies and publisher of the blog Arms Control Wonk.

Lewis and his colleagues were initially intrigued by news reports that linked Syria’s al-Hasakah Spinning Co. to the country’s clandestine nuclear program, which came to light four years ago when Israeli warplanes bombed a building that turned out to be a partly completed plutonium reactor.
The reports, citing Western diplomats and former UN officials, said aerial images of the factory were being intensely studied by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been scouring Syria for evidence of other hidden atomic facilities.

While the al-Hasakah plant clearly is now used as a textile mill, its size and shape caught the attention of nuclear experts. Viewed from the air, the facility closely resembles a uranium enrichment plant designed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the one-time head of an international nuclear smuggling ring.
Khan had extensive contacts with Syrian leaders in the 1980s, and some nuclear experts believe he provided them with blueprints for nuclear facilities. US intelligence officials say Syria eventually launched a clandestine nuclear effort centred around the plutonium reactor that was destroyed by Israeli bombs on Sept. 6, 2007.

Syria has never acknowledged seeking atomic weapons, and it only recently granted the IAEA limited access to other sites that the agency believes may have been part of its secret nuclear program.
The IAEA has never publicly identified the al-Hasakah factory as part of Syria’s nuclear network, but the renewed focus on the plant prompted Lewis to dig into old records and satellite photos. With help from a European colleague, he traced the facility’s history and eventually located the 62-year-old German engineer who supervised its construction three decades ago.

The engineer appeared mystified by the accounts suggesting that the al-Hasakah plant was originally designed to make enriched uranium.
“He burst out, ‘I built that thing!’” recalled Lewis’s colleague, German journalist Paul-Anton Krueger, who interviewed the man. The engineer described how he oversaw the construction of the plant and the installation of 75,000 machines called spindles to spin cotton and polyester into fabric. He said he had last visited the plant in 1991 and “found the factory working rather poorly, but it was still spinning -- cotton, and polyester,” Krueger wrote to Lewis in his account of the interview.

To Lewis, the episode underscores the difficulties of ferreting out nuclear secrets using computers and satellite imagery, but it hardly lets Syria off the hook. The search for hidden nuclear sites continues, he said.
“This exonerates the al-Hasakah Spinning Co.,” Lewis said. “I don’t think it exonerates Syria.”

The IAEA asked to visit the site more than two years ago.
But it has not pressed the issue, focusing its efforts on the bombed site.

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