x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Damascus considers nuclear options

Scientists in Damascus say the country needs a civilian nuclear programme to avert a looming energy crisis.

Experts say a civilian nuclear programme is vital for Syria.
Experts say a civilian nuclear programme is vital for Syria.

DAMASCUS // With Syria still under international pressure over an alleged secret atom bomb project, scientists in Damascus say the country needs a civilian nuclear programme to avert a looming energy crisis.

Inspectors from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were in Damascus this summer investigating claims Syria was building a clandestine nuclear weapon facility in a remote desert area. The disputed site was bombed in Sept 2007 by Israeli warplanes. Preliminary results, leaked to the press on Saturday, have at least for now cleared Syria of any wrongdoing. The IAEA found no traces of the graphite that would indicate a nuclear facility was actually under construction. A more detailed official IAEA report is not due until November, and the UN team wants to return to Syria to inspect other suspect sites.

Syria denies having a military nuclear programme and insists it has nothing to hide. The United States as well as Israel, however, have continued to allege that Syria - perhaps in league with Iran and North Korea - was building a nuclear weapons plant. Because of these unproven allegations, anything even remotely related to nuclear matters is extremely sensitive in Syria. The authorities here believe the United States and Israel could be seeking a pretext to carry out further attacks, and that even mention of a civil programme is therefore dangerous. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified at the time on false claims Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction.

However, in interviews with The National, independent Syrian analysts as well as government officials and advisers, said a peaceful nuclear electricity generation programme was now "essential" as oil and gas resources dry up. The Syrian authorities stress they currently have no nuclear systems, either civilian or military, or plans to develop them in either field. Damascus does run a rudimentary 27-kilowatt nuclear research plant that produces isotopes for medical and agricultural uses, a facility that has been declared to the IAEA.

"We agree with the policy to use nuclear energy in Syria for power production," said Kamal Naji, head of the department of engineering at Damascus University and a senior member of the Syrian Engineering Syndicate's energy committee. "If we started on this project now, it would not be completed before 2020." The committee is advising the Syrian government on how to increase electricity production from environmentally friendly energy sources, principally wind and solar power. Even if ambitious gains are made from both during the next two decades, a significant supply shortfall is expected after 2030.

Other Arab states, even in the oil-rich Gulf, face similar problems and the Middle East as a region is increasingly looking towards nuclear power options. Wind and solar are also inconsistent generators of power, and a reliably constant source, as provided by a gas or nuclear system, must be in place to provide a regular foundation for a nation's network. "For that reason we are encouraging Syria to think seriously about nuclear energy," Prof Naji said. "We should seriously start thinking about working on nuclear power stations and we should do it now.

"We cannot wait for all the Arab countries to start producing electricity from nuclear stations and then start making our own. "Nuclear power is really the best and perhaps only real option to replace oil and gas. It needs to be developed in parallel with renewables [such as solar and wind]. Nuclear will meet the base load demands. Nuclear and renewables are the only chances we have. There is no third choice."

The government-run National Energy Research Centre (NERC) in Damascus has drawn up Syria's strategy for future energy use and potential supplies. The blueprint does not include nuclear production. "Until today we have not looked at nuclear power," said Mohammed Khalil Sheki, NERC's acting general director. "We will start with feasible renewables first. We do not have a plan for nuclear energy, but unless the technology for renewable sources like sun and wind advance very quickly, it is possible that we may need to look at it as a source, to see us over the five to 30-year transition period from oil and gas to renewable sources."

Mr Sheki, a staunch advocate of green energy, said he expected all states would have little choice but to shift to nuclear power, at least in the medium term. "There may be a time when, as a world, we will have to encourage the use of nuclear energy that will cover the gaps as we move towards a complete sustainable energy system," he said. "The truth is that, at the moment, we cannot meet all of our needs by renewables. That applies to Syria as a country and to every other country."

Although it is not Syrian government policy to endorse nuclear power, Mr Sheki said he believed it would prove necessary and makes financial sense with oil and gas prices likely to climb further. "France and America, for example, are both expanding their nuclear energy programmes," he said. "But America is against certain other countries from doing the same, even if it is for peaceful purposes. "It takes at least 10 years to develop a nuclear programme. It is not only something that Syria will have to look at, it is something that Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia are already looking at. Maybe the Gulf countries will not have to go nuclear, but even they might."

With Syria accused of having a clandestine nuclear weapons programme - and branded a state sponsor of terrorism by the Bush administration - nuclear power is firmly off the agenda, a government adviser said. He asked to remain anonymous because he had not been authorised to talk to the media. "Syria has the legal right to have a publicly declared civilian nuclear programme and the IAEA should help us set one up and provide us with uranium fuel if we decided that is what we wanted," he said. "But even without having a nuclear programme, Israel, with American support, has attacked what they say is a nuclear facility. Just imagine what would have happened if we really did have one. There would be all kinds of accusations thrown at us."

Israel is the only nuclear state in the Middle East, with civilian power plant and nuclear weapons stockpile that it refuses to declare to the IAEA. Israel and Syria have been in a state of war for more than 50 years and Damascus remains at loggerheads with Washington over its alliance with Iran and support for Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Both groups are branded terrorist organisations by the United States.

In recent weeks, however, Syria has been re-embraced by Europe, bringing to an end years of diplomatic isolation, and undermining the Bush administration's policy of blacklisting Damascus. Despite internal calls for Syria to embark on a nuclear power project, a scientist working within the Syrian Nuclear Commission dismissed the idea. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, he insisted the official non-nuclear Syrian policy was the right one to follow.

"I know there are arguments for it, but frankly Syria does not have the technical or management expertise to deal with something as dangerous as nuclear fuel," he said. "In my opinion, no developing country should get involved with nuclear anything because there is no room for error - the consequences are unthinkable." psands@thenational.ae