February 24, 2009 / 8:25 PM / 11 years ago

Syria dismisses IAEA uranium find at bombed site

VIENNA (Reuters) - Syria said on Tuesday U.N. inspectors’ discovery of uranium traces at an alleged secret nuclear site was not “significant” as they maintain, suggesting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s analysis was faulty.

Damascus also denied U.N. officials’ account that IAEA sleuths had found graphite at the place where Washington says the Syrians had almost built a graphite-core reactor meant to yield weapons-grade plutonium, before Israel bombed it in 2007.

And Syrian atomic energy agency director Ibrahim Othman repeated that Damascus would allow no more investigative IAEA visits to the country, on the grounds this would involve military sites beyond the writ of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Othman further dismissed the IAEA’s finding that the uranium particles’ chemical composition showed they did not come from munitions Israel used against the target known as al-Kibar, saying, “That is an explanation we do not accept.”

“Chemical analysis can be played with the way you like. Always in laboratories there can be errors, anyone knows that,” he told reporters after a tough exchange with inspectors at a briefing for the agency’s 35-nation board of governors.

An IAEA power-point presentation said: “Eighty particles of uranium oxide is significant,” according to two diplomats at the closed-door gathering. That was a reference to traces found in soil samples inspectors took at the site last June.

Chief inspector Olli Heinonen said the particles found were in spherical form, not in larger fragments that would have indicated depleted uranium, an element sometimes used to increase the penetrating power of munitions.

Therefore it was up to Syria to provide a credible explanation for the particles, Heinonen told the meeting.

“They claim they found 80 particles in a half million tonnes of soil. I don’t know how you can use that figure to accuse someone of building such a facility,” responded Othman.

SITE “RESEMBLED REACTOR”

Heinonen said the IAEA was sticking by an initial assessment in November that the containment structure of the building hit by Israel, and its overall size, water pump system and “connectivity,” as shown in satellite pictures provided by Washington, were all features resembling a nuclear reactor.

He stressed that minute traces of man-made graphite had indeed been retrieved, but no link with a graphite-core reactor had been established “at present” and further study was needed to determine the origin of the particles.

Othman denied graphite had turned up in the samples, saying this could only have been carbon from ordinary machines involved in building what Syria has said was a conventional military complex, from cars or from the environment.

“There was no reason for graphite to be there. Remember, if this building was as they claim, it would have contained a huge amount of graphite and this bombardment would have spread graphite everywhere. But they didn’t find that,” he said.

IAEA has sought more access to al-Kibar and three other military sites because satellite imagery showed Syria landscaped them to alter their appearance and removed rubble and other equipment after inspectors asked to examine them.

The overall IAEA investigation remains inconclusive and an agency report last week again urged Syria to turn over documentation and grant more visits to clarify the issues.

Asked whether Syria would do that, Othman said “No.” He added: “We will continue to cooperate with the IAEA according to the safeguards agreement we signed.” That assures IAEA access only to the one declared nuclear site, an old research reactor.

Editing by Andrew Roche

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