IAEA Investigates Nuclear Sites in Syria

A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Syria Sunday to visit an alleged nuclear site bombed by Israeli jets last autumn. U.S. officials believe the facility was a nuclear reactor under construction with clandestine help from North Korea.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are in Damascus today to investigate the possibility that Syria and North Korea were secretly at work on a nuclear weapons program. Last September, Israel bombed a site in Syria believed to be a nuclear facility. In April, U.S. intelligence officials briefed Congress on what they claimed was a secret nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean help. But many questions remain. And now the IAEA has a chance to provide some answers. Here's more from NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Syria is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and has what is known as a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which means Syria is obligated to inform the IAEA about any nuclear project it embarks on. But before Israel bombed the construction site near Alkibar in Syria's eastern desert last September, the IAEA was in the dark about a possible nuclear project there. It has taken more than 10 months to get Syrian permission to investigate. At a recent meeting in Vienna, the agency's director, Mohamed El Baradei, expressed frustration about the incident.

Dr. MOHAMED EL BARADEI (Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency): It is deeply regretted that information concerning this installation was not provided to the agency in a timely manner and that force was resorted to unilaterally before the agency was given an opportunity to establish the facts in accordance with its responsibilities under the NPT and Syria's safeguard agreement.

SHUSTER: After Israeli fighter jets struck the site, everyone concerned sought to keep the incident quiet. The government of Israel said nothing. Syria was uncharacteristically mild in its criticism of Israel and said the site was a military warehouse. American intelligence sources hinted at the Syrian-North Korean link. Then in April, the U.S. intelligence community provided a narrated, audiovisual briefing to Congress, which asserted that what the Israelis bombed was a secret reactor.

(Soundbite of audiovisual briefing)

Unidentified Narrator: The reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. It was not configured to produce electricity and was ill-suited for research.

SHUSTER: The intelligence briefing asserted but did not provide conclusive evidence that North Korean specialists were involved in the project.

(Soundbite of audiovisual briefing)

Unidentified Narrator: We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities both before and after the reactor was destroyed. Only North Korea has built this type of reactor in the past 35 years.

SHUSTER: Syria denied the project was nuclear related, an assertion the intelligence community concluded was not credible.

(Soundbite of audiovisual briefing)

Unidentified Narrator: Syria moved quickly to cover up its covert nuclear activities by demolishing and burying the reactor building and by removing incriminating equipment. These actions probably were intended to forestall identification of reactor debris by international inspectors and are inconsistent with peaceful nuclear intentions.

SHUSTER: Although the intelligence briefing asserted that the Syrian reactor was about to go operational, it said no nuclear fuel had been introduced into its core. Now, IAEA inspectors may finally get an opportunity to visit the site. El Baradei insisted on Syria's full cooperation.

Dr. ELBARADEI: I should emphasize that Syria, like all states with a comprehensive safeguard agreement, has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the agency. We are therefore treating this information with the seriousness it deserves.

SHUSTER: Many believe the attacks send a signal to Iran that its nuclear facilities are also vulnerable. Israel continues to view Iran's nuclear program as a threat. In early June, it carried out extensive air maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean - said to be practice for a possible attack on Iran. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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