This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
A former high-level International Atomic Energy Agency official said on Tuesday that Syria appeared to have been constructing an undisclosed nuclear reactor at its Dair Alzour facility before Israel bombed the site in 2007, Reuters reported.
"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," according to former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen.
Damascus has not "engaged in any substantial discussion" about the site, Heinonen, who left his position with the U.N. nuclear watchdog last year, later told Reuters by e-mail.
Observers have said they suspect the facility housed a reactor being built with North Korean aid and intended for plutonium production. Syria has rejected accusations it engaged in illicit nuclear activities, but it has denied multiple IAEA requests for return visits to Dair Alzour since inspectors found traces of anthropogenic natural uranium during a June 2008 inspection of the site.
The Vienna-based agency appears set to adopt a more forceful tone in a forthcoming safeguards report on Syria, and might assert the bombed Dair Alzour site had housed a nuclear reactor, according to Western diplomatic officials. Washington and other Western governments are poised to urge the 35-nation IAEA governing board at its June meeting to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which could lead to punitive action against Syria.
"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," said a European ambassador linked to the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Involving the Security Council in the dispute would mark "a dramatic step," the official added.
Still, the inability of IAEA inspectors to further investigate Dair Alzour would probably prevent the agency from issuing an unqualified assertion about the site's purpose, diplomatic officials said.
"They can say that according to everything they know, there is a high probability, or that they assume, it was a nuclear reactor," said a Western government source.
The official suggested "it will be feasible to get a decision to refer the issue to the Security Council." The action would require support from a majority of governing board nations.
The European ambassador, though, said some countries could oppose the move. China and Russia might not participate in a potential vote on the matter, the official said.