By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The first independent investigation of the suspected nuclear site in Syria that Israel destroyed last year has bolstered U.S. claims that Damascus was building a secret nuclear reactor, according to a U.N. report that also confirmed the discovery of traces of uranium amid the ruins.
Officials with the United Nations' atomic agency stopped short of declaring the wrecked facility a nuclear reactor, but they said it strongly resembled one. And they noted that Syria had gone to great lengths -- including elaborate "landscaping" with tons of freshly imported soil -- to alter the site before admitting outsiders.
Despite the apparent cleanup effort, environmental sampling by U.N. inspectors turned up traces of uranium, the fissile metal used in nuclear reactors, according to the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world body's nuclear watchdog. But, by itself, the discovery of uranium was not conclusive, and IAEA officials said they are evaluating several possible explanations.
"It is too early to come to any conclusions," said a senior U.N. official familiar with the findings.
The report was one of two investigative documents the IAEA released yesterday in advance of a meeting next week of its 35-nation Board of Governors. In a separate report, the agency heaped criticism on Iran for not cooperating with U.N. inspectors asking about suspected nuclear weapons research. The report said Iran continues to expand its capacity for making enriched uranium, a key ingredient in commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
The IAEA has been engaged in contentious negotiations with Syria and Iran as it seeks to assess claims that both countries have been secretly planning to make nuclear weapons. Syria has denied having nuclear ambitions, while Iran contends that its nuclear program is exclusively for electricity production.
The Syrian facility, on the banks of the Euphrates River near the village of Al Kibar, was obliterated by Israeli bombs on Sept. 6, 2007. Although the Bush administration previously released photographs and other evidence suggesting that the building was a partly completed nuclear reactor, the new IAEA report is the first to provide independent support for at least some portions of the U.S. claim. An IAEA delegation was allowed to visit the site in May.
The report said satellite photos taken before and after the bombing revealed numerous features suggestive of a nuclear reactor, including a containment shield, an extensive power supply and water pumps for cooling.
"While it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building . . . are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site," the report said. It added that Syria had not provided blueprints or other documents to back its assertion that the facility was not nuclear-related.
The discovery of uranium traces was the most provocative, if perhaps puzzling, of the findings. The alleged reactor was not yet operational at the time of the bombing, and many U.S. and independent nuclear experts think that it had not been furnished with uranium fuel rods.
But the senior U.N. official, in describing the finding, said soil collected from areas that had not been obviously landscaped contained "significant" amounts of uranium. Although uranium is present in nature, the particles discovered by the IAEA teams had been "chemically" manipulated by humans but not "enriched," he said, referring to the highly complex process of converting uranium into forms used in nuclear weapons.
"In our view, this kind of material should not be there," he said.
Some nuclear experts speculated that uranium may have been stored at the reactor site for future use. The experts noted that some nuclear reactors, such as the Yongbyon reactor built by North Korea, use a form of processed uranium that has not been artificially enriched.
Last week, after news accounts first hinted about the discovery of uranium traces at the Syrian site, Syrian officials suggested that the uranium may have come from Israeli bombs. Some munitions used for attacking fortified structures are coated with depleted uranium, which is known for its density. However, the senior U.N. official said IAEA inspectors found no trace of depleted uranium at the site.