Top UN nuclear inspector Olli Heinonen resigns

VIENNA (AP) — The International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday that its senior and key nuclear inspector, Olli Heinonen, will be leaving his post at the end of August.

Heinonen, a deputy director, has headed the U.N. nuclear watchdog's all-important safeguards department, which is responsible, among other things, for making sure that nuclear material is not used for weapons.

As a deputy director, he is perhaps the most high-profile official at the Vienna-based agency after Director General Yukiya Amano and over the course of his tenure has led sensitive Iran and Syria investigations. Both countries are suspected of hiding weapons-related nuclear activities.

"We confirm that Mr. Heinonen informed the director general of his resignation for personal reasons to take effect at the end of August," IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said. "The director general has decided to respect his intention, with high appreciation for this long contribution to the agency."

She added that no decisions have been made on a successor but that the post would be filled without delay.

Heinonen, a Finnish radiochemist, joined the IAEA in 1983 and was appointed head of safeguards in July 2005.

Glyn Davies, the U.S. chief representative to the IAEA, said he had much respect and admiration for Heinonen.

"He has led a contingent of expert, dedicated inspectors who will ensure that the vital safeguards work of the IAEA will continue," Davies said. "I appreciate the very fine work Olli has undertaken for the IAEA and I'm confident that the agency's inspectors will continue that work."

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed Davies and said the United States trusted that the agency "will maintain a strong team of inspectors very capable of fulfilling their mandate, including detecting cheating and pursuing investigations of countries like Syria and Iran."