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I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb.

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College (Takoma Park, Maryland)
July 1, 2020
Syria Allows Uranium Plant Inspection

Peter Crail

Syria has given the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to an additional site tied to the country’s nuclear program, a move the agency characterized in a Feb. 25 report as a positive but insufficient step to address concerns about Syria’s nuclear activities.

The report indicated that Syria agreed in February to allow inspection of a pilot plant near the city of Homs that produces a uranium concentrate called yellowcake through the purification of phosphoric acid. Yellowcake is a precursor in the production of fuel for nuclear reactors. In April 2008, the United States formally accused Syria of constructing a nuclear reactor at Dair al Zour for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Syria denies. Israel destroyed the suspected reactor building in September 2007.

The Homs visit is part of a “plan of action” agreed between Syria and the IAEA last September to address the agency’s concerns about undeclared nuclear experiments Syria conducted at its Miniature Neutron Source Reactor in Damascus using unreported nuclear material. (See ACT, October 2010.) In 2009 the agency discovered chemically processed uranium particles not declared as part of Syria’s nuclear research efforts. After initially providing explanations inconsistent with the IAEA findings, Syria admitted to carrying out small-scale uranium-conversion and -irradiation experiments at the facility using yellowcake produced at Homs.

The agency is seeking to determine whether the Homs plant had produced larger quantities of yellowcake than Syria has reported.

According to a November 2010 IAEA report, Syria told the agency last October that the Homs plant was not subject to IAEA safeguards and that “further aspects of the Agency’s request for access needed to be discussed and clarified” before Syria could admit inspection. The IAEA does not apply standard safeguards to yellowcake because it is a form of uranium at the very early stages of creating nuclear fuel or material for a nuclear weapon.

In its recent report, the agency said that Syria’s decision to provide access to the Homs plant and to work with the agency to resolve outstanding technical issues “could represent a step forward.” However, the report added that “Syria’s responses to date under the agreed plan of action do not resolve the inconsistencies identified by the Agency.”

Syria allowed the agency to visit the suspected reactor site at Dair al Zour only once, in June 2008, and has refused repeated IAEA requests for a return inspection. Damascus also has rejected IAEA visits to three additional locations the agency has said in its reports are “allegedly functionally related to the Dair al Zour site.”

The agency detected traces of chemically processed uranium at Dair al Zour in 2008; the existence of such material may indicate the presence of nuclear fuel. It is unclear, however, what the source of the fuel for a suspected nuclear reactor would have been and whether the uranium originated in Syria.

The United States welcomed Syria’s decision to provide the IAEA access to the Homs plant but insisted that it does not address the primary concern of Syria’s suspected reactor construction at Dair al Zour.

Glyn Davies, U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, told the agency’s governing board March 9, “We must not accept Syria’s attempts to pick and choose those aspects of the plan of action—or, indeed, of Syria’s Safeguards Agreement—on which it would like to cooperate.”

Davies added that even without Syrian cooperation in providing information on the activities at the Dair al Zour site, the IAEA director-general can give the board “his best assessment as to whether the Dair al Zour facility was in fact an undeclared nuclear reactor.”