March 2, 2011 / 12:58 PM / in 7 years

UN atom inspectors to visit Syria acid plant-source

* Inspectors want to check uranium material at plant

* Syria still blocking access to suspect desert site

* IAEA chief prodding Syria to cooperate in stalled probe

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, March 2 (Reuters) - Syria has agreed to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors into an acid purification plant where uranium concentrates have also been made, a source familiar with a stalled inquiry into alleged covert Syrian atomic work said.

Syrian and International Atomic Energy Agency officials in Vienna met earlier this week to set out a date and visit plan, the source said on Wednesday. An IAEA report last week said such cooperation could be a “step forward” in its investigation.

But the agreement to visit the plant at Homs, in the country’s west near Lebanon, is unlikely to satisfy Western concerns about Syria, which is blocking IAEA requests for prompt access to a desert site seen as crucial to resolving the matter.

For over two years, Syria has refused IAEA follow-up access to the remains of a complex that was being built at Dair Alzour in the Syrian desert when Israel bombed it to rubble in 2007.

U.S. intelligence reports said it was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel. Inspectors found traces of uranium there in June 2008 that were not in Syria’s declared nuclear inventory, heightening concerns.

Syria, an ally of Iran, whose nuclear programme is also under IAEA investigation, denies ever concealing work on nuclear weapons and says the IAEA should focus on Israel instead because of its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Late last year, after repeated entreaties to Syria’s nuclear agency went nowhere, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano appealed directly to its foreign minister for cooperation with his agency and access to Dair Alzour and other locations.

“Agreement was reached for the date and programme of the visit to Homs,” the source said, adding it was a positive step. The source gave no further details, but the agency has made it clear it wants unrestricted access to Homs.

SPECIAL INSPECTION?

The Homs plant produces uranium concentrates, or “yellowcake”, as a by-product. The IAEA has sought to examine the material, which if further processed could be used as nuclear fuel. Syria says the plant is for making fertilisers.

At Homs, inspectors were likely to check for any links with a Damascus research reactor where they earlier found uranium traces that had not been declared to the IAEA as required.

Enriched uranium can be used to run nuclear power plants, but also provide material for bombs, if refined much further.

During a 2004 visit to the Homs plant, which the United Nations helped construct in the 1990s, agency inspectors observed hundreds of kilograms of yellowcake, according to a confidential IAEA report.

Last week a German newspaper said Western intelligence agencies suspected that Syria may have been building a secret uranium processing facility near Damascus possibly linked to the former Dair Alzour complex.

Vienna-based diplomats said this was believed to be one of several sites the agency has sought access to since 2008 and which Syria has said are military in nature and therefore beyond the scope of IAEA authority.

The IAEA has not commented on the German report.

The United States has suggested the IAEA may need to consider invoking its “special inspection” mechanism to give it authority to look anywhere necessary in Syria at short notice, if Syria does not let inspectors back to Dair Alzour.

The agency last resorted to such inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed a nuclear bomb capacity in secret.

The IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors will discuss the Syria and Iran investigations at a week-long meeting beginning on Monday. (Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; writing by Sylvia Westall; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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