An Untimely Quest
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


An Untimely Quest

By Edward Blair JULY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.7


Regardless of Burma’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology, its capacity to do so safely and practically should be the most immediate concern

As speculation mounts over Burma’s nuclear collaboration with Russia, perhaps o­ne fear can be laid to rest. The proposed research reactor will not allow Burma’s military leaders to produce nuclear weapons—at least not yet. So what benefits can be derived from such a facility, and what purpose might it serve in Burma?

PET (positron emission tomography) scanners like this o­ne have proved superior to other imaging techniques in the diagnosis and management of various cancers and disorders of the heart and vascular system

At 10 megawatts and with a core comprising low-enriched 20 percent uranium-235, the reactor will be too small for use in power production or the manufacture of weapons-grade fissile material in quantities necessary to produce weapons.

Reactors with similar specifications already exist in many Asean member countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Their principle use is for the production of radioisotopes, which have numerous applications in the medical, industrial and agricultural sectors.

Burma’s collaboration with Rosatom, Russia’s federal nuclear agency, comes at a critical stage in the advent of nuclear markets in the developing world and particularly in Southeast Asia.

“Today, 26 power plants are under construction worldwide, in countries from Argentina to Romania, according to the International Energy Agency,” wrote Andrew Kramer in his New York Times report “For a Russian Builder of Nuclear Plants, Business is Booming,” in early June. “Of these, o­nly two are being built in developed economies—one each in Finland and Japan.”

Southeast Asia has become a prime hunting ground for Russia’s main nuclear contractor, Atomstroyexport, which is negotiating to build Burma’s reactor. The company is currently involved in similar negotiations with Vietnam, Malaysia, Egypt, Namibia, Morocco, South Africa, Algeria, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Kramer wrote, citing Atomstroyexport’s chief executive, Sergei Shmatko.

“We’re talking about a nuclear renaissance,” Shmatko is quoted as saying by Kramer. “We are certain we have a market.”

Apart from energy concerns, this so-called renaissance has more to do with economics and industry than proliferation, as the production and application of radioisotopes becomes big business, and as a first step towards power production.

But Burma’s ability to penetrate this market, assuming this is their intention, depends as much o­n creating the necessary infrastructure as it does o­n possessing a reactor.

“Given the woefully inadequate health facilities, the lack of sufficient trained health personnel, the lack of reliable infrastructure, the absence of effective regulatory oversight of pharmaceutical products and the extensive corruption in Burma, the ability to safely and effectively use such technology there is already in question,” according to Dr Voravit Suwanvanichkij, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Radioisotopes are radioactive, and therefore extremely dangerous if not handled with meticulous care. “You need a facility, a regulatory framework, with all the inspectorates, with all of the bureaucracy, to be able to account for these individual isotopes from cradle to grave,” John Large, a nuclear engineer and analyst who heads a London-based consultant agency, Large & Associates, told The Irrawaddy.

This is to say nothing of the need for equipping hospitals throughout the country with devices capable of using radioisotopes.

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