Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Burma's nuclear ambition is apparently real and alarming

Less than two months after the conclusion of President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, a recently released documentary exposed the nuclear ambitions of deeply troubled and highly repressive Burma.

The evidence presented in the Democratic Voice of Burma's documentary, "Burma's Nuclear Ambitions", is thorough, compelling and alarming. Although Burma's pursuit of nuclear weapons has long been rumoured, the documentary contains new information from a recent defector who provided DVB with photographs, documents and a view from inside the secretive military that should finally put to rest any doubt about Burma's nuclear ambition. The evidence includes chemical processing equipment for converting uranium compounds into forms for enrichment, reactors and bombs. Taken altogether in Burma's covert programme, they have but one use - nuclear weapons.

Prior to the airing of the documentary, the DVB invited a team of international experts, including individuals with experience in military tunneling, missiles, nuclear proliferation, and weapons inspections protocol to review its information and assess its conclusions. The evidence was so consistent - from satellite images to blueprints, colour photographs, insider accounts and detailed budgets - and so copious that I agreed to appear in the documentary to offer my advice concerning Burma's nuclear ambitions.

As a former Los Alamos analyst and a director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent 30 years investigating allegations of this nature. After a careful review of the information, I became convinced that Burma's pursuit of nuclear technology violates the limits imposed on it by its agreements with the IAEA.

I authored a report on the findings, "Nuclear Activities in Burma", which explains the evidence and concludes that Burma is probably in violation of several international agreements concerning nuclear proliferation.

However, the IAEA is limited in its leverage over Burma, which has failed to upgrade its two obsolete IAEA agreements and failed to execute a new IAEA agreement called the "Additional Protocol", which would give the IAEA greater powers to question Burma and demand inspections in the country.

The Additional Protocol was a priority of former IAEA director-general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed El Baradei. In May, Chad became the 100th country to sign the Additional Protocol, while only a few remain outside its reach, including Iran and Syria. Burma also shields itself from questions and inspections using another out-of-date agreement called a "Small Quantities Protocol". This exempts states that only have small amounts of nuclear materials and no nuclear facilities from IAEA inspections and close oversight. The new evidence presented in the DVB documentary makes a compelling case that Burma's pursuit of nuclear weapons now places it in the category of countries where the Small Quantities Protocol would no longer apply.

With outdated protocols governing its IAEA participation, Burma may believe it can resist IAEA demands. However, given the serious and troubling nature of the allegations of Burma's nuclear ambitions, the IAEA and the international community must vigorously pursue all tools at their disposal to compel Burma's cooperation.

For starters, the IAEA can unilaterally cut off all aid to Burma in improving its nuclear infrastructure through expert visits, grants and equipment purchases, and to any other state that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty or agreed to the Additional Protocol.

While these new agreements are voluntary, the provision of so-called technical cooperation funds is a voluntary act on the part of the IAEA as well. It would send a clear message to Burma that the IAEA takes this issue seriously and will no longer tolerate anything less than Burma's full cooperation with the international community on the monitoring of Burma's nascent nuclear programme. Although some of the aid (US$1.3 million in 2008-2009) goes for medical and humanitarian assistance, other programmes support training nuclear experts and professionals in Burma, which is clearly inconsistent with the IAEA's interest in trying to nip a covert nuclear programme in the bud.

The new information on Burma's nuclear ambitions is now available to experts and governments around the world. Yet, even before the IAEA has even officially enquired about it, the Burmese government has denied it. Given Burma's track record in working with the international community, there is little doubt what Burma's answer will be when it is formally asked.

DVB's reportage brought to light Burma's nuclear ambition; it is also a call to anyone in Burma who knows more about covert programmes in nuclear, missile technology, and other weapons of mass destruction to come forward. Other defectors, such as Major Sai Thein Win, are likely to come forward. Many people know the truth, and it will take only a few more brave souls to expose the programme for the world to see.

Too many states have proliferated while the world stood back and watched. The A Q Khan network sold nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan and operated observed but untouched for possibly twenty years. The possibility that Burma is trying to build nuclear weapons has been a suspicion for the last decade, but now the evidence is much clearer. The world needs to get serious about choking off Burma's covert programme through export controls via the Nuclear Suppliers Group and strengthening the hand of the IAEA.

Burma is one of the world's most repressive and secretive regimes. Its ample natural wealth, including gas and oil reserves that will bring in billions of dollars annually in hard currency, make it a natural buyer for North Korea and other countries with nuclear know-how to sell. Last month, the UN Security Council received a 47-page report issued by a seven-member panel of experts on North Korea's export of nuclear technology. The UN experts noted "suspicious activity in Burma".
Burma's pursuit of nuclear weapons requires immediate international attention. Allowing yet another dictatorship to acquire the world's most powerful weapons is not an option.

By Robert Kelley recently retired director of the IAEA with over 30 years experience in nuclear non-proliferation efforts. The Nation, Bangkok

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