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Does Syria Need Nuclear Power?

Syrian analysts are divided over a decision to consider whether to build a nuclear power plant, with some saying it is essential to secure future energy supplies, and others concerned that the project could divert attention from more pressing priorities.

On November 26, the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA approved a Syrian request for a three-year, 350,000 US dollar study into the feasibility of establishing a nuclear power station.

The decision was made despite vocal opposition from the United States and other western nations, which said such aid would be inappropriate at a time when Syria remains under investigation for allegedly pursuing a covert nuclear programme.

Ibrahim Othman, head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission, welcomed the IAEA decision, saying it showed “an understanding of Syria’s position”.

Pro-government websites like Damas Post and Syria Nobles praised the move as a defeat for Syria’s critics in the US.

But analysts differ in their views on whether a nuclear project is really in the country’s best interests.

“Wealthier Arab countries with stronger economies and better ties to the West don’t have this technology,” said a political analyst in Damascus who asked to remain anonymous. “So I don’t think Syria needs it at this time, especially not when the country is facing an IAEA investigation, an international tribunal and criticism of its alleged support for Islamic extremist groups,”

He suggested the decision to fund the study could offer the international community an opportunity to exert more influence over Syria.

“It’s possible that this aid could be used as a means to encourage Syria to change its behaviour and its alliances,” he said.

The analyst said the move to fund the study should not be taken as a sign that the UN nuclear watchdog would end its investigation into a building bombed by Israeli planes last year that was said to be a covert nuclear reactor.

“It isn’t the end of the case,” he said, warning that there was still potential for a confrontation between Damascus and the IAEA.

“The agency might adopt the United States’ demand to inspect three allegedly suspicious locations inside Syria, which the government has so far refused to allow,” he said. “Such a move could lead to a crisis between Syria and the IAEA.”

A Damascus-based economist says the country has been planning to improve its energy-producing capacity for some time now.

Syria’s Nuclear Energy Committee has said previously that a need for nuclear energy will arise by 2018.

“We have been thinking about this option for a while, and it’s totally legal for Syria to think about ways to improve its economic future,” said the economist.

He explained that the country would soon find itself in need of alternatives to oil.

“Syria could become a net oil importer within a decade unless new oilfields are discovered,” he said. “Oil production reached about 600,000 barrels per day [bpd] in 1996, whereas now it is about 380,000 bpd.”

The London-based Oxford Business Group has forecast that Syrian oil production will fall by 7.9 per cent by the end of 2008, while in 2009 it will not exceed 350,000 bpd. “Oil has been the mainstay of the Syrian economy for over four decades, but production passed its peak of 610,000 barrels per day in 1995 and is now falling even more rapidly than had been forecast,” said a report by the group.

Oxford Business Group says Syria is now failing to meet the domestic demand for fuel.

Some analysts argue that the country should first concentrate on maximising alternative sources of energy.

“We have bright sun throughout the year, we have wind energy, and Syrian gas production stands at about 22 million cubic metres daily and is expected to increase,” said the political analyst. “So we are not without alternatives.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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