Syria is willing to give up a small amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and to convert a nuclear research reactor near Damascus that uses this dangerous material to one that is fueled by low enriched uranium (LEU), nuclear experts say.
Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Al-Monitor that he learned at a conference in Bucharest this week that the Syrians are seeking to modify a small HEU-fueled research reactor and have asked for technical assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pomper, who advocates ending the civilian use of HEU worldwide, called the Syria initiative “a good step.”
The Syrian offer comes only months after the regime of Bashar al-Assad fulfilled a pledge to get rid of its stockpile of chemical weapons and precursors. This new initiative could be viewed as another effort to improve the regime’s tattered international legitimacy but it is not insignificant from a nonproliferation point of view.
The United States and the old Soviet Union routinely shipped HEU abroad along with research reactors in the 1960s. A decade later, after India diverted HEU to make a nuclear weapon, the superpowers began efforts to reduce the use of the material overseas. According to Pomper, there are still about 54 tons of HEU in civilian use in 29 countries across the globe.
The Syrian reactor was provided by China along with fuel, of which less than one kilogram is believed to remain. It is located at the Der al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center near Damascus.
Andrew Bieniawski, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former senior official with the US Department of Energy (DOE), told Al-Monitor that China supplied five of the so-called miniature neutron sources reactors to foreign countries. In addition to Syria and Iran, the other three are located in Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan, he said.
China is already working on producing LEU fuel for the Ghana reactor and is expected to take back the HEU core sometime later this year, Bieniawski said. He said the fuel has to be put in special packaging and is typically flown out of a country. DOE has been assisting China in how to safely transport the material.
“This is a big deal,” Bieniawksi said, and “China is showing leadership” by instituting a take-back program for HEU.