(June 21, 2007) Myanmar's military leaders have never made a secret of their interest in developing a domestic nuclear-energy industry. Plans to buy a nuclear reactor from Russia have been in the pipeline for years, and in May in Moscow the two sides formally resurrected those controversial plans. Is it just for 'peaceful purposes' or is the junta looking for something else? Recent contacts with N-Korea and Pakistan are not reassuring.
(657.5811) WISE Amsterdam - Washington in recent years has referred to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny" and maintains trade and investment sanctions against the military regime. Some political analysts are already speculating whether Myanmar might try to use the threat of re-gearing its nuclear test reactor to reproduce weapons as a way to counteract US-led pressure for political change.
Under the new agreement, Russia's atomic energy agency Rosatom will build a nuclear-research center, including a 10-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor with low-enriched uranium consisting of less than 20% uranium-235, an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, a silicon doping system, and nuclear-waste treatment and burial facilities, according to a statement released by Rosatom.
The project is initially slated to focus on medical and agricultural research in support of Myanmar's languishing and highly underdeveloped economy, a Western diplomat acquainted with the nuclear plans told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. As part of the agreement, Russian universities would also be tasked with training an additional 350 Myanmar-national specialists to work at the planned nuclear center. Over the past six years, more than 1,000 Myanmar scientists, technicians and military personnel have received nuclear training in Russia, according to Myanmar government officials. Under a 2002 agreement, Russia was set to build a nuclear reactor in Myanmar but later scrapped the plan over the junta's lack of funds.
According to Russian officials, the construction and supervision of the planned research center will come under the control of the IAEA. Myanmar is currently a member of the IAEA and already reportedly has a so-called "safeguards agreement" in place. Under the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), states in compliance with their safeguards' obligations and other provisions are allowed to pursue nuclear energy or technology solely for peaceful purposes.
In recent years, Myanmar has sent emissaries abroad to explore different options for developing a nuclear reactor and avenues for acquiring nuclear technology, according to Western diplomats tracking the junta's nuclear plans. They contend that this year Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Too made a low-profile visit to Iran in the regime's search for nuclear technology and materials.
Myanmar's close contacts with Pakistan have also recently come under diplomatic scrutiny. Western diplomats based in Islamabad say they are convinced that the junta's desire to acquire nuclear know-how has been a central focus of the budding bilateral relationship. Pakistani officials have fervently denied that they are in any way abetting Myanmar's nuclear ambitions. But widespread rumors that two Pakistani nuclear scientists accused of nuclear proliferation were given sanctuary in Myanmar in 2003 still linger.
More ominous have been the growing contacts between Myanmar and North Korea - in April month the countries formally re-established diplomatic relations. According to a US State Department official involved in monitoring nuclear-proliferation issues, several suspicious shipments have arrived from North Korea over the past six months.
Sources say that at the same time the junta presses ahead with its plans for a nuclear reactor, the government has stepped up its exploration for uranium in the country. Surveys and test mining are taking place at four sites, including in the ethnic Kachin and Shan states, a government official told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. In 2002, at the time the original plans for a nuclear reactor were mooted, the government had reportedly discovered uranium deposits in five areas in central and northern Myanmar.
Dissidents and exile groups have said in the past that Yangon might embark on a weapons programme, but analysts say there is no evidence yet to back that up. "Few objective observers question the ruthlessness of the military government in Rangoon or its determination to cling to power," an Australian analyst, Selth, writes, but adding that a weapon aim at this moment is very unlikely. Even if the generals had the political will to pursue a weapons programme, the technical and resource hurdles "would constitute formidable obstacles", Selth said. In fact, some analysts believe the generals' desire for their own reactor is more about status and prestige.
Neighbor and historical foe Thailand was not worried about a reactor in Myanmar "as long as it is under the close supervision of the IAEA", Foreign Ministry spokesman Piriya Khempon said. "Other countries in the region, namely Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, have research units and they are all under the supervision of the IAEA," he said. But Thailand immediately responded: according to Minister of Energy Amaranand a 4000MW nuclear power plant will be constructed and is planned to go online in 2020 but unclear until now is if there is a contract signed. The nuclear power plant is expected to cost 4.5 billion Euro (US$6 billion).
Sources: Asia Times, 24 May, / Dawn (internet) edition, 17 May 2007