November 19, 2008 / 3:35 PM / 10 years ago

Syria site hit by Israel resembled atom plant: IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) - A Syrian complex bombed by Israel bore multiple features resembling those of a nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors found “significant” traces of uranium at the site, a watchdog report said on Wednesday.

An undated image released by the U.S. government shows the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor building under construction in Syria. A Syrian complex bombed by Israel bore features resembling those of an undeclared nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site, a watchdog report said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Handout

But the International Atomic Energy Agency report said the findings from an inspectors trip to the site in June were not enough to conclude a covert reactor was there. It said further investigation and greater Syrian transparency were needed.

Obtained by Reuters, the nuclear safeguards report said Syria would be asked to show to inspectors debris and equipment whisked away from the site at Al-Kibar in the country’s eastern desert after the September 2007 Israeli air raid.

The United States gave intelligence to the IAEA last April that Washington said indicated the site was a reactor that was close to being built with North Korean assistance and designed to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.

Syria, an ally of Iran whose disputed uranium enrichment program has been under IAEA investigation for years, says the site destroyed was a conventional military building and the uranium traces must have come from munitions used to bomb it.

Damascus has dismissed as fabricated the satellite imagery, ground pictures of the site taken before Israel’s attack and other intelligence underpinning the investigation.

“While it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building, along with the connectivity of the site to adequate pumping capacity of cooling water, are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site,” said the IAEA report, sent to its 35-nation board of governors ahead of a November 27-28 meeting.

It said photographs also revealed a containment shield similar in dimension and layout to those of atomic reactors.

It said Syria had not provided requested documentation to back its declarations about the nature of the building nor granted repeated IAEA requests for visits to three other sites seen as harboring possible evidence linked to Israel’s target.

Satellite pictures show Syria carried out landscaping of these sites to change their look and took away large containers after the IAEA asked for access to those areas, the report said.

Other aerial imagery revealed Syria swept the Al-Kibar site clean after the attack and erected a new building on the spot. The IAEA will ask Syria to let inspectors take swipe samples from rubble, shrapnel and any equipment removed from Al-Kibar.

An undated image released by the U.S. government shows the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor building under construction in Syria. A Syrian complex bombed by Israel bore features resembling those of an undeclared nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site, a watchdog report said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Handout

SYRIAN TRANSPARENCY NEEDED

It said IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei had urged Syria to “provide the necessary transparency including allowing visits to the requested locations and access to all available information for the agency to complete its assessment.”

U.N. officials said the uranium contamination that turned up in soil samples collected at the site was a “chemically processed” form of the mineral that was not the enriched variety used to run nuclear power plants or as fissile bomb material.

But the element found was not depleted uranium either, the type used to boost the penetrating power of munitions.

“There’s enough uranium here to raise questions. The onus of this verification is on Syria,” said a senior U.N. official, who like others asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities.

The uranium element in question was not in Syria’s declared nuclear inventory. Syria’s only official nuclear site is an old research reactor. It has no known nuclear energy capacity.

An undated image released by the U.S. government shows the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor building under construction in Syria. A Syrian complex bombed by Israel bore features resembling those of an undeclared nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site, a watchdog report said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Handout

The IAEA also intends to ask Israel for information addressing Syria’s remarks about the origin of the uranium. Israel has remained silent on the matter since the air raid.

ElBaradei said on Monday the uranium traces could have come on clothing of workers who had been in contact with nuclear materials somewhere, or from stored equipment.

The report said Syria had told inspectors the site could not have been a nuclear facility because of unreliable, insufficient electricity supplies locally, limited available manpower and the lack of large quantities of treated water. But the report said inspectors saw enough electrical grid to power reactor pumps.

Another senior U.N. official said the investigation had urgent need of high-resolution pictures of the site he said must have been taken in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

He said eight countries, which he declined to identify, had access to such imagery but had not turned it over to date.

The report complained that the investigation had been “severely hampered by (Israel’s) unilateral use of force” and by a U.S. failure to hand over relevant intelligence until seven months after the bombing.

“In light of (that), the agency’s verification of the situation has been made more difficult and complex, as well as more time- and resource-consuming,” the report said.

Editing by Janet Lawrence

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