Burma’s Nuclear Program: Dream or Nightmare?
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
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Burma’s Nuclear Program: Dream or Nightmare?


By William Ashton MAY, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.5


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Over the past 15 years, Burma’s armed forces have demonstrated a remarkable ability to justify arms acquisitions that, to most observers, seem to be without any credible strategic or economic rationale. The ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, appears determined to persist with its military modernization and expansion program in the face of such stark realities as Burma’s struggling economy, the collapse of its social infrastructure, the poverty of its people and the concerns of its neighbors. Perhaps the best example of the military junta’s questionable priorities is its determination to build a nuclear reactor. This project has caused considerable unease in the region, and in centers like Vienna and Washington. Over the past few months, this concern has begun to turn to alarm, as reports have emerged suggesting that the reactor may be built with the assistance of North Korea. This has raised the specter of a future nuclear weapons program that could intimidate Burma’s neighbors and be used as a bargaining chip against the US and its allies. Burma’s nuclear ambitions date back at least to December 2000, when the SPDC’s Minister for Science and Technology, U Thaung, visited Moscow and met with the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy. There were reports at the time that Burma had also approached China, and made its interest in a nuclear reactor known to potential vendors there. Pakistan too may have been contacted for assistance. The Department of Atomic Energy was created in U Thaung’s ministry, which was made responsible for pursuing this project, including contacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. In September 2001 Rangoon formally approached the IAEA for assistance in obtaining a nuclear research reactor. The agency initially decided to ignore the request, on the grounds that Burma neither needed a reactor nor had the infrastructure and funding to support such a project. It was also concerned about the collapse of Burma’s education system since 1988 and its low technical skills base. Despite these reservations, an IAEA inspection team was sent to Burma that November. The team’s assessment, however, simply confirmed the agency’s original views. There were rumors in early 2002 that, without the IAEA’s help, the junta could not meet the cost of the nuclear project. But in May it was announced that Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry, known as Minatom, had agreed to “cooperate in designing and building a nuclear studies center that will include a research nuclear reactor with a thermal capacity of 10 megawatts and two laboratories.” Minatom undertook to design the center, help choose the site, deliver the nuclear fuel, and supply all essential equipment and materials. Russian experts would assemble, install and help operate the center’s “main technical equipment.” The agreement included structures for the disposal of nuclear waste and a waste burial site. Russia would also train Burmese technicians to help build and operate the reactor. The deal was signed in Moscow in July 2002. There was initial speculation that the nuclear facility would be built in Rangoon, followed by some unlikely reports that it was going to be built on an offshore island near Ye. However, it was later revealed that a groundbreaking ceremony for the facility was scheduled to take place at a secret location near Magwe, in central Burma, in January 2003. The reactor and associated equipment were to be delivered later that year. The Rangoon regime said that it expected the reactor to be built “within a few years.” In anticipation of these events, hundreds of Burmese officials were sent to Russia for training. The reasons behind the junta’s interest in a nuclear reactor have never been clear. There were several statements during 2002 that the reactor was to be used for peaceful medical purposes. The Foreign Minister was reported as saying too that the reactor could be used “possibly to generate nuclear power.” Yet the construction of such an expensive and highly specialized facility for electricity generation is irrational. Burma could barely maintain its basic civil infrastructure, and its level of technological development was very low. The production of medical isotopes could be achieved more economically elsewhere. While it suffers from electricity shortages, Burma has ample natural gas and is constructing several new hydroelectric power stations. The main impetus behind the nuclear reactor project appears to be status and prestige. The international reaction to the announcement of the nuclear project was predictable. A number of serious concerns were expressed, relating largely to the safety and security of any reactor built in Burma.


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