Experts debate nuclear intentions

Two former directors of the world’s top atomic energy watchdog have clashed over claims that Burma is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

In an article released by investigative group ProPublica that provided the basis for the ‘Burma’s Nuclear Puzzle’ documentary on PBS, Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the evidence is inconclusive. The article was a reaction to a documentary by DVB and a report authored by nuclear scientist Robert Kelley, released in June this year.

Kelley’s 30-page report based on his analysis of DVB’s material concluded that “it is likely that Burma is trying to attempt many of the nuclear program steps reported by previous sources”, but that “success may be beyond Burma’s reach”.

Nevertheless, he said, the intent is clear.  And despite the crude and unprofessional nature of the evidence that indicates a program still at extremely early stages, Kelley advised the international community to react quickly to avoid Burma reaching the stage that North Korea has.

Heinonen rejects the findings of the report, however, saying, “There is no smoking gun”. Kelley claims that Heinonen has misinterpreted his conclusions.

“Heinonen did not read our report enough to judge our conclusions.  He is quoted as saying ‘There is no one single piece which puts your mind at rest telling that this is solely for nuclear purposes and for nothing else’. We reached the same conclusion after reviewing information from several other human sources, satellite imagery and other information. It is the many pieces of information fitted together that are convincing”

Kelley, himself a former director in the IAEA, also sought to clarify confusion in the ProPublica report about a piece of equipment shown in DVB’s photographs: ProPublica claims that Kelley alleged a ‘glove box’ could  “be used to make uranium metal”, which he did not.

Kelley points out that Propublica and Heinonen have misread the report and confused a glove box with a bomb reactor. ”Our report says no such thing,” he said. “The caption under the photo shows the bomb reactors and describes the high temperatures that one has been exposed to.”

Another area of contention was the comparison of DVB’s source, Sai Thein Win, to “Curveball”, an Iraqi defector who falsely described Saddam Hussein’s supposed efforts to build biological weapons. But while Sai Thein Win produced images and documents confirming both his status in the military and his position in the long-speculated factories, “Curveball” could not.

Heinonen, who worked under Kelley in his weapons team in South Africa in the early 1990s, says that Burma’s work thus far could be used as fuel for nuclear power plants.  However, in so doing Burma would have broken international legal agreements and would be obligated to report its research to the IAEA.

And Kelley does not think the report went too far. “It was written very, very carefully because of the seriousness of our allegation. But at 30 pages, the report is too long for some people to read the entire thing so they cherry pick words here and there and miss the meaning.”

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