Syria Squeezes Atomic Monitors Between Russian, U.S. Requests

United Nations atomic monitors are facing conflicting requests from the world’s two biggest nuclear powers over their role in protecting Syrian citizens from potential nuclear fallout.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is considering a request from Russia to analyze the risks of potential military strikes against Syrian nuclear facilities, Director General Yukiya Amano said today at a briefing. The Russian request was opposed by U.S. IAEA envoy Joseph Macmanus, who said an agency inquiry would go beyond its authority.

“We have to address the technical aspects, there are certain political aspects and legal aspects,” Amano said in Vienna. The request “is related to possible military action. Views are divided so far.”

As the U.S. contemplates military strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia warned last week that an attack on a research reactor in Damascus could be catastrophic. The U.S. won a divisive IAEA vote in 2011 that sent Syria to the UN Security Council over an alleged nuclear-weapon facility destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli raid.

“It is our view that requests for comprehensive risk analysis of hypothetical scenarios are beyond the IAEA’s statutory authority,” Macmanus said in prepared remarks. It “will have to review such a request in light of legal authorities, mandate and resources and must determine whether there is a scientific basis for conducting a highly speculative investigation of this kind.”

Asked whether a strike on the miniature neutron reactor in Damascaus, housing about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of highly enriched uranium, could kill thousands or spread contamination beyond Syria, Amano said “it is difficult to say.”

The IAEA’s 35-member board of governors is meeting this week in the Austrian capital.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.