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Syria's nuclear plant project wins IAEA assistance

November 27, 2008|REUTERS

VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency approved a contested Syrian bid for assistance in planning a nuclear power plant Wednesday after being assured that the effort would be closely monitored.

The United States, Canada and Australia had led Western efforts to freeze the project while allegations of covert activity that could lead to nuclear weapons were investigated. But the U.S. and its allies finally joined a consensus in favor of the aid since they could not have won a vote, diplomats in the closed meeting said.

Syria's request for the power plant aid, something rubber-stamped for many nations, degenerated into a political tug of war after an agency report suggested Damascus might have tried to build a nuclear reactor in secret.

The Nov. 19 report said that a Syrian building demolished in an Israeli air raid last year bore similarities to a nuclear reactor and that uranium particles, possibly remnants of pre-enriched nuclear fuel, had been found in the area.

But the report cautioned that the findings, based on U.S. satellite intelligence and one on-site IAEA inspection, were preliminary and that more investigation, as well as Syrian documentation to prove its denials of illicit work, was essential.

Major Western nations wanted the project halted as long as Syria was being investigated. Russia, China and developing states, backed by IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei, countered that there was no legal basis for denying a country aid for civilian atomic energy unless proliferation accusations were proven.

On the same day as the IAEA acted, a senior Iranian official said his country is now running 5,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, signaling an expansion of work in another country that the West fears is aiming to make weapons.

The number of centrifuges given by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, was higher than a figure of 3,800 the IAEA cited in its Nov. 19 report.

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