Watch CBSN Live

Syrian Nuke Site Images Claim Scrutinized

Privately obtained satellite images being scrutinized by the United Nations nuclear agency show what appears to be a nuclear reactor construction site in Syria, and could be the site struck last month by Israeli warplanes, according to a Washington-based security firm.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said Tuesday it had obtained the same images being used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to check claims made by a senior U.S. official that Syria was constructing a reactor, possibly with the help of North Korea.

Israel's Sept. 6 strike on its Arab neighbor was shrouded for weeks in secrecy before officials would even confirm that warplanes had crossed the border. When they did, they still refused to comment on the target of their strike.

David Albright - a former nuclear inspector who is now a scholar with the ISIS - coauthored the report which found various buildings at the site just east of the Euphrates River in Syria strongly resemble a reactor facility.

"The tall building in the image may house a reactor under construction and the pump station along the river may have been intended to supply cooling water to the reactor," the ISIS report says.

ISIS said trucks could be seen about 100 yards from the buildings, which, "along with evidence of heavy machinery tracks around this site, indicates recent construction activity." The image being referred to was provided by DigitalGlobe, and dated Aug. 10, 2007, less than a month before the Israeli incursion.

The Washington Post, which received a draft of the ISIS findings prior to their publication, reported Wednesday that, "U.S. and international experts and officials familiar with the site, who were shown the photographs yesterday, said there was a strong and credible possibility that they depict the remote compound that was attacked" by Israel.

IAEA analysts have not yet reached any conclusions about the nature of the site, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar, though they do agree that construction activity there is recent and was apparently ongoing.

The site being examined is about 90 miles from Iraq's western border. ISIS reports there is an airstrip about 2 miles north of the site which "would serve as quick transportation of personnel and officials."

Diplomats acknowledged Friday that U.N. experts were analyzing satellite imagery of the Syrian site, disclosing what amounts to the first independent look at claims that Damascus was hiding a nuclear facility.

One of the diplomats linked to the IAEA confirmed that agency experts were looking at commercial images, discounting suggestions from other quarters that they had come from U.S. intelligence.

The first claim by an official that Israel had targeted a suspected nuclear site in Syria was made by former senior U.S. diplomat John Bolton.

Soon after he made the claim public, a State Department nuclear official suggested that North Korea was helping Syria to develop a clandestine nuclear program, saying North Koreans were in the Mideast state and that Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment.

U.S. officials told CBS News in September that the airstrike destroyed a building Israeli intelligence believed housed nuclear equipment, and that it was launched three days after a North Korean ship docked at a Syrian port.

U.S. officials say the arrival of that ship triggered the strike against the building which had been under surveillance by an Israeli satellite sent into orbit last June, reported CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

The Washington Post reported Friday that an anonymous official had indicated similarities between the site seen in the satellite images from Syria and a key nuclear reactor in North Korea.

ISIS says if the site in Syria is a reactor being built to North Korean specifications, it is likely of the same kind as the Yongbyon reactor facility near Pyongyang. ISIS' analysis of the buildings in the images shows similar size and shape to those found at Yongbyon.

"The Syrian building size suggests that the reactor would be in the range of about 20-25 megawatts-thermal, large enough to make about one nuclear weapon's worth of plutonium each year," the think-tank's report concluded.

Syria denies that it has an undeclared nuclear program and North Korea has said it was not involved in any nuclear program in the Mideast nation. Damascus has said the Israelis targeted an empty building, and the agency has said it has no evidence to the contrary.

The diplomats said that Vienna-based Syrian diplomats have met with senior IAEA representatives since the bombing, but have provided no substantive information that would indicate their country had nuclear secrets.

Syria has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has allowed agency experts to inspect its only known nuclear facility - a small, 27-kilowatt reactor, according to diplomats linked to the IAEA.