UN: New uranium traces found in Syria

Other News Materials 6 June 2009 04:27 (UTC +04:00)

The U.N nuclear agency on Friday reported its second unexplained find of uranium particles at a Syrian nuclear site, in a probe launched by suspicions that a remote desert site hit by Israeli warplanes was a nearly finished plutonium producing reactor, AP reported.

In a separate report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran continued to expand its uranium enrichment program despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to pressure Tehran into freezing such activities.

And it said the growing pace of enrichment is causing it to review its inspection routine so that it can maintain oversight of the process.

Iran and Syria are under IAEA investigation - Tehran, since revelations more than six years ago of undeclared nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, and Syria after Israel bombed a structure in 2006 said by the U.S. to be a reactor built with North Korean help.

But the agency has made little progress for over a year in both cases, and both of the restricted reports made available to The Associated Press on Friday essentially confirmed the status quo - stonewalling by both countries of the two separate IAEA probes.

Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful; Damascus denies hiding any nuclear program.

"In order for the agency to complete its assessment, Syria needs to be more cooperative and transparent," said the IAEA in a document that detailed repeated attempts by agency inspectors to press for renewed inspections and documents - all turned down by Damascus.

Drawing heavily on language of previous reports, the Iran document said Tehran has not "cooperated with the agency ... which gives rise to concerns and which need to be clarified to exclude the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."

The report noted that Tehran continued to rebuff agency efforts to investigate suspicions the Islamic Republic had at least planned to make nuclear weapons.

Without cooperation by the Islamic Republic, the IAEA "will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," the report said.

Syria and Iran are to come under renewed scrutiny when the 35-nation board of the agency meets June 15 to discuss the two reports.

While the Syrian report was prepared only for the board members, the one on Iran also was transmitted Friday to the Security Council, which for more than three years has tried to pressure Tehran to give up enrichment and other activities of concern.

Tehran says it is exercising its right to develop nuclear power in expanding its enrichment program. But the U.S. other great powers and dozens of additional countries fear Iran might at some point shift from producing low enriched uranium needed for nuclear fuel to making highly enriched matter suitable for use in the core of nuclear warheads.

The IAEA's Iran report reflected continued expansion both in the terms of the equipment in use or being set up and the amount of enriched uranium being turned out by those machines - centrifuges that spin uranium gas into enriched material.

Nearly 5,000 centrifuges were processing uranium gas at the Natanz facility as of May 31, said the report, while more than 2,000 others were ready for operation. More than nearly 3,000 pounds - 1,300 kilograms - of low enriched uranium had been produced as of that date, said the more than four-page report.

That compares to just over 2,220 pounds (1,000 kilograms) mentioned in the last IAEA report in February an amount that experts and U.S. officials subsequently said was enough to process into enough weapons grade uranium for a nuclear warhead.

Commenting on the Iran report, the Washington based Institute for Science and International Security said that at the present pace of production of enriched uranium, Tehran could make two nuclear weapons - should it choose to do so - within eight months.

The report said inspectors have told Tehran that "given the increased number of ... (centrifuges) being installed and the increased rate of production ... improvements to the containment and surveillance measures" are needed. A senior U.N official said the IAEA was considering redirecting surveillance equipment and asking Iranian nuclear staff to change their "walking routes" through the underground Natanz facility as part of the changes. He demanded anonymity in exchange for commenting on the confidential report.

Reversing the previous U.S. stance, the Obama administration has said it is ready to talk one-on-one with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue. Obama himself has said Tehran has the right to benefit from nuclear power - as long as all proliferation concerns are put to rest.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said his country will not negotiate on its right to enrichment.

On Syria, the agency said the newest traces of uranium were found after months of analysis in environmental samples taken last year of a small experimental reactor in Damascus.

It already reported a similar finding in February at a separate site - at or near the building bombed by Israel more than two years ago.

As in the case of the earlier find, the uranium particles "are of a type not included in Syria's declared inventory of nuclear material," said the report, saying their origin and potential significance still "needs to be understood."

It also said Syria continued to deny cooperation with North Korea in building its nuclear program.