Nuclear Confusion
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Nuclear Confusion

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Robert E. Kelley (Photo: AP)
Nuclear scientist and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Dr. Robert E. Kelley hit the headlines earlier this year when he wrote a report claiming that Burma's military junta was mining uranium and working toward developing a nuclear reactor. His report was commissioned by the exile Burmese news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which was, in turn, shortlisted for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Kelley recently spoke to The Irrawaddy's Simon Roughneen about the alleged nuclear weapons program, and said that despite the claims in his report there has been little or no international effort to investigate. He said he believes that the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should be at the forefront of efforts to address the nuclear weapons issue.

Question: Remind us of the content of the documentation that you reviewed as part of the DVB exposé of the Burmese military junta's alleged nuclear weapons program. Can you tell us the significance and implications of this material?

Answer: Firstly, the jargon and terms that people were using were reminiscent of insider knowledge, not just general mentions of “a nuclear program in Burma.” I got a chance to interview the defector source, Sai Win, when he came out, and the photos he brought out were of pieces of chemical processing equipment at the factories he worked in. I recognized one of those objects as a bomb reactor, which is a very strong steel vessel for producing metal and chloride compounds, usually uranium or plutonium. What I found was a set of photos showing uranium compounds for use in a nuclear program, either for fuel in a nuclear reactor or metal parts in a nuclear bomb. I didn't see much other purpose for those things, or for keeping it all secret, for doing it in military factories or for lying to the Germans inspecting those factories—unless it were for a nuclear weapons program.

Q: Have any significant updates or new information come to light since the DVB report came out in June?

A: Probably the most insight I’ve got is that I have tried to understand the organization that lies behind the program—who has the money, who calls the shots. I understand that a little better now. There is a confusing division between the army and the Ministry of Science and Technology. That has led to a slowdown in the program, I think; but in the long term, the winner of that power struggle could take control of the program and really drive it on.

Q: We are in Bangkok now. One of the “weapons” in the non-proliferation “arsenal,” for want of better words, is the Bangkok Treaty, How can that be used to prevent or preempt any nuclear weapons program? Or, what can or should the international community be doing in response to what might be taking place inside Burma?

A: There are three classes of organizations that could deal with this. Firstly, the IAEA has two obsolete agreements with Burma, which most countries that have nothing to hide have updated—the Small Quantities Protocol [SQP] and the Additional Protocol. The IAEA would have to benefit from heavyweight diplomatic support to get back into Burma, which is very hard to do. The SQP has been amended in many countries and updated, but Burma refuses to engage on this. Secondly, there are sovereign states who may want to jump in, but these have issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and may not want to get involved. The third party that could address this is Asean. It is their neighborhood, their problem, their treaty that is being violated, so maybe with everyone else busy with other issues it should be down to Asean to address this.

Q: You have said that the Burma program, from what you can see, is limited and unsophisticated in terms of its technical scope. Does this mean that a more cautious approach is needed in addressing or assessing whether or not Burma really is building a nuclear bomb?

A: There is no threat tomorrow, unless the DPRK [North Korea], which has been helping, decides to do more.

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Soe Thane Wrote:
What Mr Kelly doesn't understand is that in Burma, under this regime, there is often less, much less, than meets the eye.

There is a "Cyber City" which has zero chance of producing a computer industry. There are hospitals that can save no patients. There are 'universities' that educate no students. There are lists of new highways when there are only dirt roads. All this is done for show, or to please the boss, or to please Number One.

It's the same with the nuclear program. Maybe there is one. Maybe someone is trying to please his boss. Maybe impressive looking machines were imported. But behind the show, even the secret show, you won't find much substance.

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