IAEA Disputes Syrian Uranium Claims

Peter Crail

An analysis by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disputed Syria’s explanation for the presence of man-made uranium particles at a reactor in Damascus, according to a Nov. 16 agency report. The results of environmental sampling carried out at the reactor in August 2008 “do not support Syria’s earlier explanation for the origin and presence of the particles,” the report said.

The uranium traces come from annual environmental samples the agency took 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 Syria bought from China in 1991 for training and radioisotope production. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) The reactor is under IAEA safeguards.

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

According to an Aug. 28 IAEA report, Syria claimed that the particles “had resulted from the accumulation of sample and reference materials used in neutron activation analysis.” (See ACT, September 2009.) The IAEA told Syria in October about the analysis that disputed this claim. The agency’s recent report indicated that, during a Nov. 2 meeting with the IAEA, Damascus identified other possible sources of the particles, “including domestically produced yellowcake and small quantities of imported, but previously undeclared, commercial uranyl nitrate.”

Yellowcake is milled and chemically processed uranium powder. It is not subject to IAEA safeguards because it is a form of uranium at the very early stages of creating nuclear fuel or material for a nuclear weapon. A diplomatic source familiar with IAEA safeguards said in a Nov. 18 e-mail that “uranyl nitrate on the other hand, is a precursor chemical for further uranium processing, including possibly enrichment, so it is covered by safeguards and must be declared.” Syria provided the agency with an explanation of the presence of the uranyl nitrate at the reactor facility, but the IAEA report did not reveal that explanation.

The IAEA carried out a follow-up inspection Nov. 17 to validate a new Syrian explanation for the presence of uranium particles.

This marks the second time that Syria’s explanation of the origin of uranium contamination has been inconsistent with IAEA findings. The IAEA has been investigating allegations by the West that Syria had been engaged in a nuclear weapons program, focusing on a suspected nuclear reactor at a site called Dair al Zour. Israel destroyed that facility in 2007. (See ACT, October 2007.) The IAEA said in the recent report that Syria has not provided the information or access necessary to verify that Damascus had not engaged in undeclared nuclear activities.

The first set of uranium traces was uncovered at the Dair al Zour site by the IAEA’s initial investigations in June 2008. (See ACT, December 2008.) Syria claimed that those particles had come from the munitions Israel used to destroy the facility, a claim the agency characterized as being of “low probability.”

The agency is also continuing to investigate Syrian procurement efforts, which the IAEA says “could support the construction of a reactor.”