The media has been abuzz with reports from diplomats that the IAEA discovered minute traces of processed uranium in samples taken from the suspected Syrian nuclear installation destroyed by Israel last September. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei seems irked by attempts to prejudge the agency’s conclusion ahead of a report coming later this month, but it is still being used as justification for taking the accusations seriously, in spite of lacking any real concrete evidence.
So where did this uranium come from? There are several schools of thought on that. The diplomats who leaked the discovery conceded the inspectors could have tracked in the uranium themselves on their clothes or equipment. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speculated that the uranium could have actually come from the Israeli bombs. All this would be easier to clarify, it has been pointed out by ElBaradei, if they had been told of the suspicions before the site was leveled by an Israeli air strike.
Though in the absence of the IAEA’s report what exactly the inspectors found isn’t clear, several people including Minister al-Moallem claimed the traces were of enriched uranium. This further complicates the US narrative about the site: they alleged the building was an unfinished gas-graphite reactor, which would use unenriched uranium to produce electricity, with the ability to recover plutonium for use in nuclear arms.
Other than these traces of uranium, samples taken from the site have yielded no evidence that the site was used for anything resembling a portion of a nuclear weapons program. It is unclear how Syria could have even hypothetically come into possession of a meaningful amount of enriched uranium: it seems impossible they would be able to hide an enrichment program large enough to be of practical use for power generation, let alone the much greater requirements for a weapon.