Syrian nuclear site 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
VIENNA - Satellite images and other information indicate Syria was building a covert atomic reactor when Israel bombed the site in 2007, a former senior UN nuclear inspector said on Tuesday.
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Olli Heinonen, who stepped down as deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2010, made his remarks at a time when some argue that Damascus may soon be referred to the UN Security Council over the issue.
Now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, he said "satellite imagery, procurement, and infrastructure information tend to point (in the) direction that the destroyed building at Dair Alzour was, indeed, a nuclear reactor at an advanced state of construction".
In an email to Reuters, he said, however, that Syria had not "engaged in any substantial discussion" about Dair Alzour.
Israeli warplanes wrecked the desert site in September 2007 and Syria
has allowed IAEA investigators to visit it only once, in June 2008,
rejecting repeated requests for further visits.
Western diplomats expect the Vienna-based IAEA to use stronger language
in its next quarterly report on Syria which is due later this month,
possibly by saying it believes the facility was a reactor under
The United States and its European allies are expected to seize on this
finding to push for a decision at the June 6-10 meeting of the IAEA's
governing board to send the file to the U.N. Security Council -- a move
last used against Iran in 2006.
The move would reflect growing frustration in the West over Syria's
stonewalling of an IAEA probe into Dair Alzour, which US intelligence
reports said was a nascent North Korean-designed reactor intended to
make bomb fuel.
Preparations for a possible U.S.-led move by the IAEA's 35-nation
governing board coincide with a Syrian crackdown on pro-democracy
demonstrations. Western diplomats in Vienna insist the two issues are
"There is a general feeling that there has been a stalemate in the
Syrian case for too long and therefore something has to be done," one
European ambassador accredited to the IAEA said.
"It is a dramatic step," he said about the possibility that the Syria
nuclear case would be handed over to the Security Council, which may
debate the issue or take other action.
Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having a nuclear weapons programme.
It has suggested uranium traces uncovered at Dair Alzour after a one-off
IAEA visit came with Israeli munitions used in the attack. The agency
has dismissed this as unlikely.SOME COUNTRIES SKEPTICAL
Diplomats said the IAEA -- which in earlier reports said there were
indications nuclear activity may have taken place at Dair Alzour -- was
unlikely to make a definitive, final assessment due to a lack of further
access to the site.
"They can say that according to everything they know there is a high
probability, or that they assume, it was a nuclear reactor," one Western
Western diplomats say Syria's refusal to allow UN inspectors follow-up
access to Dair Alzour risks undermining the IAEA and the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty that underpins its work to prevent the spread
of atom bombs, if nothing is done.
The board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if
they are judged to have violated IAEA rules designed to make sure atom
technology is not diverted for military aims.
A majority vote in favor would be needed for this step.
"I think it will be feasible to get a decision to refer the issue to the Security Council," the Western official said.
The European ambassador said some countries on the IAEA board may not
back such a decision. He expected Russia and China, which last month
resisted a Security Council condemnation of Syria's clampdown on
demonstrators, to abstain in any vote.
One developing country diplomat said that whatever Syria did at Dair Alzour it was now in the past, unlike the Iran case.
"To send it to the Security Council it has to be a threat to
international peace and security," said the diplomat. "Do you have any
proof they are doing it right now?"