VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog criticized on Tuesday diplomatic disclosures that it had found uranium traces at a Syrian site under investigation, saying this was an effort to prejudge the agency’s conclusions.
It was a rare open expression of irritation within the agency about news leaks, which some say risk putting a political spin on its technical findings in probes of nations suspected in the West to be illicit nuclear proliferators.
Several diplomats tracking the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Monday that particles of processed uranium turned up in some test samples IAEA inspectors took at the site. These were not enough to draw conclusions about any undeclared nuclear activity but warranted further investigation, they told Reuters.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed the agency was drafting a report on Syria and had put it on the agenda of the agency’s November 27-28 governors meeting — both firsts, in what diplomats said hinted inspectors had found something serious.
But she said the IAEA’s evaluation of findings from a June visit to the site, which Washington says was a secret nuclear reactor almost built before it was bombed by Israel in 2007, was not finished and a public verdict was unwarranted until then.
“We regret that people are trying to prejudge the IAEA’s technical assessment. We are, however, accustomed to these kinds of efforts to hype and undermine the process before every meeting of the IAEA board (of governors),” Fleming said.
The IAEA did not challenge the substance of Monday’s revelations about the uranium traces.
A diplomat close to the agency said its concern was that the leaks could not reflect the full picture and that circulating highly confidential information before an official report could discourage Syrian cooperation with the IAEA.
Syria’s ambassador to the IAEA did not return messages asking for comment. There was also no comment from Damascus. It has dismissed U.S. intelligence pointing to a nascent plutonium-making reactor at the site as fabricated.
Diplomats said the question was the provenance of the contamination, since intelligence from Washington and other nations contained nothing to suggest nuclear fuel was stored at the site.
The particles retrieved from some environmental swipe samples were of processed uranium — which could include the enriched version that in large quantities would fuel power plants or bombs, not of raw uranium ore, they said.
Such traces, they said, could have been carried to the site inadvertently on scientists or workers or on equipment trucked in. Syria has one declared atomic site, a research reactor.
A remote source could resemble a finding made in a long IAEA investigation of Iran’s secretive nuclear program.
Bomb-grade uranium particles found by IAEA sleuths there were assessed to have come with used equipment obtained from Pakistan, not from any undeclared domestic production facility.
Iran says its expanding uranium enrichment program is for electricity only, but is under IAEA scrutiny and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend the work and curbing IAEA access meant to verify there is no parallel military nuclear activity there.
Iran and Syria have balked at granting IAEA investigators’ access to military sites. Both are adversaries of the United States and Israel and do not want to reveal possible targets.
Editing by Elizabeth Piper