U.N. Inspectors Find Traces of Uranium at Second Site in Syria

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

U.N. inspectors probing allegations of a clandestine nuclear program in Syria have discovered traces of uranium at a second location, fueling concerns among nuclear experts that the country was secretly planning to build nuclear weapons.

A report yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency said the uranium traces were discovered during routine testing at a small research reactor in Damascus, the capital, that is subject to U.N. oversight. Lab analysis showed the particles to be a form of chemically processed uranium -- a "type not included in Syria's declared inventory of nuclear material," the report said.

The traces were discovered on equipment known as "hot cells," suggesting to some independent experts that Syria was experimenting with techniques that could be used in a more sophisticated facility to isolate plutonium from spent reactor fuel.

"The presence and origin of such particles . . . needs to be understood," the agency said in its report. Syria has not yet offered a credible explanation for the particles, the report said.

U.N. inspectors collected the samples last year as the watchdog agency was simultaneously investigating allegations that Syria had secretly constructed a plutonium-production reactor on the Euphrates River near the village of Al Kibar. The partially constructed facility was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in September 2007.

Syria insists that the bombed facility was not nuclear-related. But the government's denials were shaken last year by the IAEA's discovery of traces of a specialized form of uranium in soil around the ruined facility. Syria has so far failed to provide a convincing explanation for those traces, either; moreover, it has refused IAEA requests for further visits to that bombed site, or to three other facilities that U.S. officials suspect may have been part of a nascent nuclear weapons program.

U.N. officials also are pressing Syria to explain purchases of large quantities of graphite and barium sulfate, both key elements in certain kinds of reactors.

The most recent discovery of uranium particles "implies at least some kind of experimentation" by Syria, said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). In the worst case, he said, they could indicate that Syria "has not abandoned its ambition" to explore nuclear weapons, he said.

In an unrelated report also issued yesterday, IAEA officials noted further progress by Iran in increasing its production of low-enriched uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power plants. The agency said Iran is now feeding uranium into nearly 5,000 centrifuges -- the standard machine used for enrichment -- and has an additional 2,100 on standby. With further processing, the same machines could produce the high-enriched uranium used in nuclear bombs.

In an analysis of the IAEA's latest data, ISIS concluded that Iran's production rate for enriched uranium had shot up by 20 percent, compared with a comparable period last year.

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