VIENNA (AP) — Russia and the United States clashed Monday over the nuclear hazards posed by any U.S. attack on Syria, with Moscow pressing the U.N. atomic agency for a quick assessment of such dangers and the U.S. dismissing the request as outside of the agency's authority.
The dispute at the opening session of this week's 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting appeared to be eclipsing the usual focus on Iran and suspicions that it is interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran denies such goals and with IAEA efforts to probe the allegations at a standstill, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano had nothing new to report on the issue in his opening comments to the meeting.
Instead, the morning meeting focused on Russia's request, backed by Cuba, and U.S. rejection of the appeal. Caught in the middle was Amano.
A Sept. 5 letter to Amano from the Russian foreign ministry obtained Monday by The Associated Press repeated Russian concerns expressed last week by ministry officials, warning of "catastrophic" consequences if a research reactor near Damascus is hit.
"There is a probability of contamination of (the) surrounding area with highly-enriched uranium and fission products," said the letter, whose circulation was restricted to the 35-nations on the agency's board. Additionally, it warned that the material could fall into the hands of terrorists.
The agency last week agreed to consider an assessment of such dangers after receipt of the letter. On Thursday, two diplomats who were inside the closed IAEA meeting cited Russian envoy Grigory Berdennikov as saying urgent action was needed on the Russian request. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press about the session.
But in comments made available to media, chief U.S. delegate Joseph Macmanus argued there were no grounds for the agency to conduct "a highly speculative investigation of this kind" because it was not part of the IAEA's mandate.
The argument heated up after Russia again took the floor in an afternoon session to urge IAEA action and Britain backed America, prompting Macmanus to call for an end to the discussion. The United States, he said, opposed having the agency "dragged into a political debate" on the issue.
Amano told reporters the reactor contained only about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of highly enriched uranium. That's a fraction of the 25 kilograms (55 pounds) needed to make a weapon. Experts say the amount in the reactor could spread radiation only over a relatively small area if the facility were struck, with some even questioning that scenario.
"A direct hit on the reactor would most likely bury its tiny core — the size of a paint can in a deep well — under tons of building debris where it would be perfectly safe," said nuclear engineer Robert Kelley, a former senior IAEA official.
But Vladimir Voronkov, another senior Russian envoy to the IAEA, said that amount — if exposed by an attack — is enough for terrorists to use for a "dirty bomb," which is far easier to make than a normal nuclear weapon and spreads radioactivity through a conventional explosion.
He told the AP he could not estimate how many people could be killed by a direct hit on the reactor but said "any such attack would be a disastrous one."
Amano told reporters the agency had to take into consideration the views of other board members as well as legal and technical issues involved in such an assessment before deciding whether it can go ahead.