UN agency finds new uranium traces at Syrian site

VIENNA: U.N. nuclear agency samples taken from a Syrian site suspected of being a secretly built reactor have revealed new traces of processed uranium, the agency reported Thursday.

A separate report by the same organization — the International Atomic Energy Agency — noted a significant slowdown in Iran's efforts to expand its uranium enrichment program. The U.N. Security Council has slapped sanctions on Iran for not freezing enrichment, which can be used to make both nuclear fuel and the core of warheads.

The report did not suggest a reason for the slowdown. But agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said earlier this week the reason appeared to be "political" — indicating Iran may be waiting for conciliatory signals from the new U.S. administration, which has said it is ready to talk directly with Iran on nuclear and other disputes.

A diplomat familiar with the enrichment program suggested, however, that the reason might be technical, with the program experiencing significant breakdown of the centrifuges used to spin uranium gas into enriched material. He demanded anonymity for discussing confidential information.

Both reports — meant for restricted release Thursday only to the 35 nations of the IAEA board — were obtained by The Associated Press ahead of a board meeting starting March 2 that will have the nuclear activities of the two Mideast nations on its agenda.

The documents paint a generally disheartening picture of the agency's efforts to probe the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful; Damascus denies hiding any nuclear program.

On Iran, the report noted Tehran's "continued lack of cooperation" in agency efforts to investigate suspicions the Islamic Republic had at least planned to make nuclear weapons. It said Iran continued both uranium enrichment and building a heavy water reactor that will produce plutonium — like enriched uranium, a possible component of nuclear warheads.

The Syria report noted the refusal by Damascus to allow agency inspectors to make follow-up visits to sites suspected of harboring a secret nuclear program.

The brevity of the reports — the one on Iran ran five pages, the one on Syria was just three — reflected the lack of progress in the probes.

Still, a senior U.N. official who asked to remain anonymous in exchange for commenting on the restricted reports, described as significant the find of new uranium traces from samples taken during a visit in June to the Al Kibar site bombed in 2007 by Israeli jets.

Minute traces of processed uranium from those samples were found late last year. The official said additional analysis had found 40 more uranium particles, for a total of 80.

Syria has suggested the traces came from Israel ordnance used to hit the site but the report said the composition of the uranium made that unlikely. Israel has denied it was the source of the uranium.

The official said experts were also analyzing traces of graphite and stainless steel found around the site, although he cautioned it was too early to say whether they were related to nuclear activity.

Inspectors at the Al Kibar site were known to be looking for graphite, an element in the type of North Korean prototype that the United States says the Syrians were trying to build with help from Pyongyang.

On Iran, the agency said Tehran was now fully operating 3,936 centrifuges to enrich uranium at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz, about 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of Tehran — only 164 more than at the time of its last report in November.

But it continued building hundreds more centrifuges and linking them into the configurations used for enrichment, said the IAEA.

Tehran has announced a target of 9,000 centrifuges by the end of this for what it says is a large-scale nuclear program meant solely to power reactors.

Independent experts have noted that the Islamic Republic may be running out of the raw uranium needed to create the feedstock for enrichment.

With uranium imports banned under Security Council sanctions on Tehran and its domestic mining possibilities limited, the diplomats have warned that Iran may to import the material illegally. The diplomats demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing the sensitive topic.

A senior Iranian envoy, however, disputed suggestions that Iranian uranium mines were inadequate.

"We have the capacity of producing our own yellowcake," said Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, chief Iranian delegate to the IAEA, using the common term for raw uranium.

He declined to discuss why Iran was expanding its enrichment program at a slower than expected pace but repeated that his country would not suspend the process, despite Security Council demands.

To date, Iran has enriched more than 1,600 pounds (over 800 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear fuel, the report said. U.N. officials have said that Tehran would have to produce less than twice that to begin enriching it to the weapons-grade level needed to produce a warhead.

The report on Iran, which also went to the Security Council, complained both about Iran's stonewalling on its alleged nuclear weapons plans and experiments and its general refusal to give the IAEA greater inspecting rights.

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