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Venezuelan scientists doubt country has uranium despite WikiLeaks

Venezuelan scientists doubt their government's commitment and ability to build a nuclear reactor and called reports that the nation was providing uranium to Iran highly unlikely, according to diplomatic cables issued in 2009 and released by WikiLeaks on Wednesday.

In conversations between U.S Embassy staff in Caracas and "several local nuclear physicists," the experts painted a dismal picture of the country's research facilities, saying the nation's sole 1950's-era experimental nuclear reactor had been stripped for parts by students.

According to the confidential cable from Jan. 8, 2009, researchers griped that the government did not trust scientists and had put up road blocks to importing nuclear material for experiments. As a result, one researcher said he had resorted to smuggling in "undeclared material in his pocket" from a source in California and scavenging radium from old medical equipment.

In October, Venezuela announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia to build a nuclear reactor to augment its aging hydroelectric system.

But the cables make clear that Venezuela's nuclear experts doubt the government's sincerity.

Referring to a similar cooperation deal hammered out with Russia in 2008, the researchers thought "nothing will come of it," the cable said.

The experts said the nation was also lacking the technical expertise to build or manage a reactor.

Of the 130 former students who might have the academic credentials to be involved in such a project almost all of them were "either selling shoes or building shopping malls‚" the researcher said.

The physicists also said media reports that there might be three substantial uranium deposits in the country were highly suspect.

One physicist "was firm in his assertion that Venezuela has little uranium," the cable said. "His friend, [a] respected Venezuelan geologist, often jokes with him that 'yes there is a uranium mine, but no one knows where it is.'‚''

In a separate confidential cable from June 11, 2009, a "plain spoken nuclear physicist" said that there might be uranium deposits in the states of Merida and Trujillo, but "he contended that no one could be sure, however, since the last meaningful study concluded in 1976," the cable said.

Even so, Iranian technicians have been in Venezuela since at least 2006 looking for such deposits, according to a secret cable from April of that year, released by Spain's El Pais newspaper late Wednesday.

Citing a university professor and senior official of the opposition Accion Democratica party, the cable said that 20 Iranian officials were working in the Ministry of Basic Industry and Mines and 37 Iranians were active in the Venezuelan Institute of Geology and Mines.

On Sept. 25, 2009 three months after the physicist had spoken about limited uranium deposits in some states Venezuela's Minister of Basic Industry and Mining claimed that Iran had helped carry out geophysical testing and aerial surveys to calculate the size of Venezuela's uranium deposits.

Still, embassy staffers seemed unsure how much credence to put into those claims.

"Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan produced uranium may help burnish the government's revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims," embassy staffers wrote in the comment section of the cable.

WikiLeaks, a controversial whistle-blower website, began releasing a cache of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on Sunday.