IAEA Finds Uranium at Second Syrian Site

Peter Crail

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have discovered traces of an undeclared form of uranium at a second Syrian site, according to a June 5 IAEA report. The find adds further questions to a year-long IAEA inquiry into allegations that Syria had secretly pursued nuclear weapons.

The newly discovered uranium traces come from annual environmental samples the agency took in August 2008 from "hot cells," containments that are shielded to allow safe handling of radioactive material. The hot cells are in a facility that also houses Syria's Miniature Neutron Source Reactor, a 30-kilowatt miniature reactor that Syria bought from China in 1991. Such reactors typically are used for training and radioisotope production.

The IAEA described the detected particles as being "of a type not declared at the facility."

The agency indicated that Syria has failed to explain the origin of the chemically processed uranium and that further analysis is needed to determine if there is a connection to similar traces found at a facility Israel destroyed in 2007 at a site called Dair al Zour. Washington claims that the destroyed facility was a nuclear reactor that Damascus was building with North Korean assistance to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, May 2008.) A senior UN official said in February that the chemical composition of the uranium particles found at that site "could be consistent with uranium used in a nuclear reactor." (See ACT, March 2009.)

A diplomatic source said June 18 that the IAEA is still analyzing the uranium from Dair al Zour.

During a June 15-19 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, Syrian officials sought to downplay the presence of the particles discovered in the hot cells.

The diplomatic source said that Syria claimed during the board meeting that Damascus only recently began using the hot cells once again for student research. According to the source, Syria said the IAEA would be expected to pick up activity from such renewed use.

The Associated Press also quoted Ibrahim Othman, director-general of Syria's Atomic Energy Commission, describing the finding as only "one particle or two particles." Another diplomatic source disputed Othman's claim, telling Arms Control Today June 22 that the agency discovered "a significant number of particles, close to the number found at Dair al Zour."

The United States has called on Syria to cooperate with the IAEA to resolve all unanswered issues raised by the agency. Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. deputy chief of mission to the IAEA, told the 35-member board that there needed to be an understanding why "material that was not previously declared to the IAEA was detected at two facilities in Syria, one of which was being constructed clandestinely," Agence France-Presse reported June 18.

In addition to seeking answers regarding the uranium particles, the agency has sought an explanation of Syria's efforts to obtain items that could be used in constructing a nuclear reactor. In particular, the IAEA sought to clarify the role of the pumping station on the Euphrates River associated with the destroyed Dair al Zour facility and the purpose of the large quantities of graphite and barium sulfate sought by Syrian entities.

North Korea used graphite as a moderating material to absorb neutrons in its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Barium sulfate can be used as a shielding material in similar reactors.

According to the June 5 report, Damascus told the IAEA that the pumping station was used for civil water purification. Syria also claimed that the graphite was intended for its steel industry and the barium sulfate for shielding radiation therapy centers, the report said.

The IAEA said that it could not yet confirm these explanations and that a May 24 letter Damascus sent to the agency did not contain any of the requested supporting documentation for Syria's claims.

The agency is also still assessing Syria's denial of alleged cooperation between Syrian and North Korean nuclear scientists and with a North Korean import/export firm.