VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. investigators have found traces of uranium at a Syrian site Washington says was a secret nuclear reactor almost built before Israel bombed the target last year, diplomats said on Monday.
They said the minute uranium particles turned up in some environmental swipe samples U.N. inspectors took at the site in a visit last June. They said the finding was not enough to draw conclusions but raised concerns requiring further clarification.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and Syria had no immediate comment. However, word of the finding leaked hours after IAEA officials confirmed Director Mohamed ElBaradei was preparing a formal written report on Syria for the first time.
Moreover, Syria has been made an official agenda item at the year-end November 27-28 meeting of the U.N. watchdog’s 35-nation board of governors, unlike previously when IAEA officials said initial inquiries were inconclusive.
Syria denies U.S. intelligence alleging it was building a reactor with North Korean expertise meant to make plutonium, the main atomic bomb ingredient reprocessed from spent uranium fuel. If proven this would violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Damascus says the unverified intelligence was fabricated and Washington has no credibility in the field after using bogus evidence of an Iraqi doomsday arms program to justify the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and devastated the country.
ElBaradei told an IAEA board meeting in September that preliminary findings from test samples taken by inspectors granted a visit in June to the desert location hit by Israel bore no traces of atomic activity.
Diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog said a wider range of samples had now been analyzed and some showed contamination with minute amounts of a uranium compound.
“It isn’t enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation,” said one diplomat accredited to the IAEA.
“It was a man-made component, not natural (ore). There is no sign there was already nuclear fuel or (production) activity there,” another diplomat told Reuters.
This diplomat noted that such traces could have been carried to the site inadvertently on the clothes of scientists or workers or on equipment brought in from elsewhere.
Diplomats close to the IAEA have said Syria has ignored agency requests to check three military sites for equipment or other evidence possibly linked to the alleged reactor site.
“The agency clearly thinks it has something significant enough to report to put Syria on the (nuclear safeguards) agenda right after North Korea and Iran,” said a senior diplomat with ties to the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog.
“It’s been made clear to us that the samples raise further questions,” said a fourth diplomat who like others asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information.
Syria’s only declared nuclear site is a research reactor. It is an ally of Iran, whose secretive uranium enrichment program is subject of a long-running investigation now stalled over IAEA demands for wider access. Iran says it is refining uranium only for electricity, not nuclear weapons as Western leaders suspect.
ElBaradei’s Syria report, as well as his latest one on Iran, are expected to be issued next week ahead of the board meeting.
Given the allegations against Syria, the United States, Britain and France raised questions to IAEA officials last week about a Syrian bid for an IAEA “technical feasibility and site selection study” for a nuclear power plant, diplomats added.
“It is ludicrous that Syria is asking for such technical assistance at the same time it is under investigation for covert nuclear work,” said the senior diplomat, suggesting the project would not win the required consensus approval by the board.
The IAEA has been probing Syria since May, shortly after Washington handed over intelligence about the site — but months after Israel flattened it and Syria swept it clean.
ElBaradei criticized the delay in intelligence-sharing and a U.S. failure to alert the IAEA before the bombing, saying this would make it very difficult for the world’s NPT guardian agency to establish the facts “because the corpse is gone.”
Syria says all that was at the al-Kibar site was a disused military building. It told an IAEA assembly in September it was cooperating fully with the probe but would not go as far as opening up military sites as this would undermine its security.
Editing by Dominic Evans