The top U.N. nuclear official strongly rebuked Western powers yesterday for trying to deny a Syrian request to study the feasibility of building a nuclear power plant (see GSN, Nov. 17).
The request for support from the International Atomic Energy Agency is under review by the agency's 35-nation Board of Governors, which began a preliminary meeting yesterday to consider $253 million in projects proposed for 2009-2011. Damascus has asked for help studying the "technical and economic feasibility and site selection" of a nuclear power station.
However, Syria is the subject of an agency investigation into allegations that the nation nearly finished building a secret nuclear reactor last year before Israel destroyed the facility in an air strike (see GSN, Nov. 24).
That investigation has so far yielded some suspicious findings, but the agency has made no formal conclusions (see GSN, Nov. 19), and agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday chastised the United States and other Western countries for using the incomplete investigation as grounds to bar Syria's request for technical assistance.
"'Investigation' is not part of our lexicon, it's not part of our statute," he told members of the board's Technical Assistance and Cooperation Committee. "There are claims against Syria: yes, we are looking at them. There were claims against Iraq, which proved to be bonkers, but only after a terrible war. So we have to be very careful when we talk about investigations."
"All of you, even if you are not lawyers, know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty. We continue to act on that basis," he told the delegates.
The Syrian request was harmless, he said.
"This project did not parachute out of the sky. We have been working with Syria since 1979 with a view to introducing nuclear power. Thirty years!" he said. "All the equipment that is provided is relevant to the project, and is of an innocuous nature. None of it requires any [nuclear] safeguards."
Above all, ElBaradei said the Western pressure reflected poorly on the agency's independence.
"I am concerned about the concerns expressed because they cast doubt on the ability of the [IAEA] secretariat to conduct itself with the necessary professionalism and impartiality," he said.
ElBaradei has reacted strongly at other times when he felt that nations were impugning his credibility. Last year he walked out of board meeting after perceiving too much criticism of a plan he had brokered with Iran to examine that nation's past nuclear activities (see GSN, Sept. 12, 2007).
"This latest clash between Dr. ElBaradei and the Bush administration and some Western powers is reminiscent of other clashes in recent years," said a senior IAEA official. "It goes back to his insistence on maintaining the agency's independence, following due process and preventing the IAEA from becoming a kangaroo court" (Greg Webb, Global Security Newswire, Nov. 25).
Despite ElBaradei's complaints, U.S. officials yesterday continued to rail against the Syrian request.
Providing IAEA assistance would be "totally inappropriate, we believe, given the fact that Syria is under investigation by the IAEA for building a nuclear reactor outside the bounds of its international legal commitments," U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. "And then for the IAEA to be involved in providing technical information concerning nuclear activities would seem to be contradictory, if not ironic" (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Nov. 24).