Bringing Burma's nuclear secrets to the table

With the recent admission that Burma does not have the resources to contemplate pursuing nuclear weapons, the government has made an important step towards rejoining the world community. It should take this opportunity to sign the international agreements it has praised and join the club of responsible nations. Failing to do so could provide something of an acid test regarding allegations levelled against its military ambitions.

That Burma “cannot afford” nuclear weapons, as the ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tin Win, said in Vienna last week, may come as no surprise: its decision in 2005 to relocate the capital from Rangoon would have cost billions of dollars and strained the country’s treasuries. Last year’s expose by DVB of a nascent weapons’ programme clearly stated that the project would likely prove too ambitious for the government.

But the admission last week could have myriad benefits for the country and its decrepit energy and health sectors. Burma has had an on-off agreement with Russia to build a nuclear reactor and research laboratory in the country since 2001. The agreement was formalized in 2007, but Russia has never been willing to complete the deal because Burma has obsolete agreements with the IAEA. No country could consider giving nuclear technology to Burma when it has insulated itself against any IAEA inspections.

Burma’s treaty agreements with the IAEA stipulate that it has no nuclear materials and no nuclear facilities, and in practice, the IAEA waives the right to normal inspections in the country since both parties agree there is nothing to inspect. There has never been an inspection in Burma to verify the misuse of nuclear materials, and it’s unlikely there ever will be, because according to the agreement there are no materials. This is, of course, an endless circular argument.

A research reactor would be a very ordinary research tool in a small country like Burma. It would represent no threat to world peace, particularly when it is subject to regular IAEA nuclear material inspections. But without inspections there would be constant concerns that even a small facility could be used for nefarious purposes.  Such a facility would cost Burma about $US150 million, a very small sum for a country rich in mineral, timber and gas resources. If Burma feels this is a strain on the budget, it is because the money is being spent elsewhere, likely on the military.

It is not clear how Burma planned to use its research reactor. The most likely use would have been to produce medical isotopes for healthcare, a sector so fractured that it might be that the relatively high technology products for nuclear medicine go unused. The reactor could be used to train nuclear engineers for bigger projects in the distant future, for at present, Burma’s decrepit technology base means that nuclear power is a distant dream.

Now that Burma has publicly renounced any nuclear activities, there should be no barriers to signing a modern nuclear materials safeguards agreement with the IAEA and modifying its existing codicils that essentially prohibit nuclear inspections in the country. Burma’s current agreements are dated from the early 1990s and are completely obsolete.

Burma needs to consider signing the Model Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA additional inspection rights. It requires Naypyidaw to submit more information on its imports and exports of nuclear materials, and report on existing nuclear activities. Because Burma has now declared that all planned nuclear activities have ceased, this should be no problem.

It would help to refute accusations by some exiles and analysts, including me, that the government is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. This evidence comes from activities in two mechanical workshops built around 2005 and equipped with modern European machine tools of high calibre. These tools are possibly building processing equipment that could produce uranium for a reactor or a bomb. The equipment was photographed by a Burmese army defector, who smuggled the images out of the country.

To be sure, even if Burma allows inspections under a modern IAEA agreement, the workshops would not be the immediate sites for vetting because they have no nuclear materials, but are only workplaces supporting a programme elsewhere. Fears surrounding these programmes are fuelled by reports of uranium mining, mostly in Shan state, and alleged nuclear activities at Thabeikkyin, north of Mandalay. None of this is being reported to the IAEA.

If Naypyidaw steps up to the table and signs a modern full inspection agreement with IAEA, then Burma can put these claims to rest. IAEA supervision would also temper concerns about a research reactor.

Failing to do this, however, means that it remains in the small club of countries, alongside Iran and Syria, that have refused to sign the modern agreements, and will retain pariah status. Using the occasion in Vienna to reiterate Burma’s commitment to international nuclear material safeguards and robust nuclear inspections holds little credibility unless it is followed with more tangible action.

Robert Kelley is a former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

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