Russia may help build a nuclear power plant in Syria, Russia's energy minister said on Tuesday, a step that could upset the West due to unresolved allegations Damascus tried to construct a potential nuclear weapons facility in secret.
In 2007, Israel bombed to rubble what Washington said was a nascent, plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Syria's desert and a UN nuclear watchdog probe to determine what the target was has stalled due to Syrian non-cooperation, diplomats say.
On the first state visit to Syria by a Kremlin chief since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev played up prospects for nuclear power cooperation and said Washington should work harder for peace in the Middle East.
"Cooperation on atomic energy could get a second wind," Medvedev said at a news conference with Syrian President Bashar Assad after their talks.
Assad said he and Medvedev "talked about oil and gas cooperation, as well as constructing conventional or nuclear powered electricity stations."
Asked whether Russia would build an atomic power plant in Syria, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko told Reuters: "We are studying this question."
Assad (R) with Medvedev in Damascus on Tuesday (Photo: AP)
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been investigating Syria for two years over what it says was a complex that resembled a nuclear reactor before it was bombed to rubble by Israeli warplanes in September 2007.
Syria has strongly denied US intelligence that the complex was a North Korean-designed reactor geared to making plutonium for atomic bombs, saying it was merely a conventional military building.
But a recent IAEA report said uranium traces found in a 2008 visit to the area by UN inspectors pointed to nuclear-related activity on the ground, but Damascus was denying further IAEA access needed to draw conclusions.
Syrian nuclear transparency sought
The United States, Israel's chief ally, and several European countries have demanded that Syria cooperate fully with the IAEA inquiry, saying the issue will not go away.
Shmatko said that cooperation with Russia on a possible nuclear plant would require Damascus to abide by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits signatories including Syria without nuclear weaponry from trying to acquire them.
He also suggested Russia might build more nuclear power reactors in Iran beyond the one it plans to switch on this year near the city of Bushehr despite likely US disapproval.
Tehran is under UN sanctions for refusing to rein in a secretive uranium enrichment program.
"We are in favor of continuing cooperation with Iran in the energy sphere to the full extent, including in building light-water reactors," Shmatko told journalists.
Russia says all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear power programs and is aggressively seeking contracts abroad to build atomic power plants.