Syria says mulls first nuclear power plant by 2020
* Syrian document makes no mention of atom fuel production
* Israel bombed suspected Syrian reactor in 2007 * Syria denies bomb aims, says focus should be on Israel
* Expert says nuclear power plant should not be a concern
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Syria is considering building its first nuclear power plant by 2020 to meet rapidly growing electricity demand, a document from the Arab state's Atomic Energy Commission showed.
The paper posted on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency did not say whether Syria, which is under IAEA investigation over suspected covert nuclear activity, may also contemplate making its own fuel for such a facility. Any bid by Syria to launch uranium enrichment, like its ally Iran, would likely further alarm the United States and its Western allies about Damascus' atomic activities as such material can also be used to make bombs if refined much more.
Russia said in May last year, during a visit to Damascus by President Dmitry Medvedev, that it was studying building an atomic power plant in Syria.
Syrian officials have given no details since then and none was available to comment on Tuesday.
"In principle, building a nuclear power plant, as long as you don't use it as a pretext to develop the whole fuel cycle ...shouldn't be a major concern," said Pierre Goldschmidt, a former head of global inspections at the IAEA.
Countries have the right to develop nuclear energy provided they comply with their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the facilities are under IAEA oversight.
"Of course, Syria does not lead very much by example because they don't allow the agency to access some of the sites the agency wishes to visit," Goldschmidt added.
The IAEA, the U.N. nuclear body, has voiced growing frustration at what it sees as lack of Syrian cooperation with a probe into a desert site bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports have said the Dair Alzour facility was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Like Iran, Syria denies ever having an atom bomb programme and says Israel should be investigated instead. Saying Dair Alzour was a non-nuclear, military facility, it has refused to grant an IAEA request to revisit it. [ID:LDE71D24I]
Western diplomats say the Dair Alzour issue is expected to be high on the agenda of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board when it meets in early March.
The Syrian document, from a presentation made at a closed-door seminar on nuclear energy at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters last week, made no mention of the dispute.
The country, which only has limited fossil fuel supplies, has been plagued for years with electricity shortages.
Its paper on "the development of the national nuclear infrastructure" predicted that national power demand would increase by more than a third between 2010 and 2015.
Because of this development, it said building Syria's first nuclear power plant by 2020 as well as a number of hydro power plants within the next few years were being considered.
It said the IAEA, which supports countries in developing peaceful nuclear energy programmes, was providing assistance in the preparation of infrastructure.
Dozens of countries in the world, some in the conflict-prone Middle East, are looking into introducing possible nuclear energy programmes, to reduce their dependence on oil and gas.
To prevent this from also increasing the risk of atomic weapons proliferation, the United States, the European Union and Russia have backed plans to establish multilateral fuel banks so that nuclear power newcomers do not need to make it themselves.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)
© Thomson Reuters 2017 All rights reserved