Burma's Nuclear Adventure—The Real Threat
By ROBERT KELLEY Wednesday, October 27, 2010


For several years reports have been emerging from Burma about its nuclear ambitions, supported by claims of varying provenance about equipment purchases and overt attempts to buy nuclear technology from Russia.

Now a brave military officer, who defected from the secretive state, has provided photographs of specialized machine shops building chemical equipment that is almost certainly designed for processing uranium chemical compounds to enrich uranium.

The only reason for Burma to be taking this secretive path is to embark on a weapons program. There is no other logical fit for the pieces.

The good news is that the technology is far too complex for Burma to master easily. The photos and information provided by the defector show a dysfunctional program. It has made terrible technology choices and the quality of the workmanship we can observe is primitive.

If Burma stays on this course there is a good possibility the program will never succeed, although we must remember, however, that the photographs and descriptions available for examination come from a single source. 

It is possible there are other areas where the program is better managed and more advanced.  Nonetheless from what we can see, there is no immediate threat to Burma's neighbors.

Yet should another country step in to assist Burma with knowledge, equipment and nuclear materials this could rapidly change. Pakistani nuclear scientists reportedly fled to Burma in 2001, and North Korea, closely allied with the Burmese regime, provides it with conventional weaponry. North Korea has detonated two nuclear devices of its own. It is suspected of sharing this technology.

And that's the bad news: there is every reason to be alarmed by reports that a state, regardless of its technical limits, may be toying with the development of nuclear weapons. The dye has long been cast: nuclear arms merchants and their suppliers are a chilling aspect of nuclear proliferation. The nuclear weapons dreams of despots cannot be readily dismissed. What they may themselves be unable to produce they can purchase.

At risk in this high stakes game is not only the security of the would-be nuclear proliferator's neighbors but the international non-proliferation regime.

I have been serving the goals of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) for 20 years. We have always come from behind in trying to stop proliferators. We succeeded just in time in Iraq when we discovered a clandestine program in 1991. We arrived too late in North Korea, even though there were unmistakable signs that proliferation was occurring. Pakistan, which did not sign the NPT, openly produced nuclear weapons while we stood by helplessly, exploded test devices, and then contrived to re-export its nuclear knowledge to an unknown number of persons and states that had signed the NPT.

In the non-proliferation community, we have argued for more and better tools to detect potential proliferators. Now we have used some of those tools to identify one, but the response from many quarters is that it is too soon, too difficult and too hard, to investigate and stop Burma.

But when is the right time? When it is too late? What tools will the world use then? Sanctions? Bombs?  These are key questions. Intelligence analysis has done its job: it's identified the parts of a potential smoking gun. Now is the time to act.

Burma has been caught earlier and more completely than any other would-be proliferator. It's against such risks that the NPT and its system of safeguards was established. Its complement, the Bangkok Treaty, establishing a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone encompassing Asean states, is a further buttress against proliferation.

If we fail to act in a timely manner to respond to this poorly executed but obvious threat, we render meaningless the NPT and the tenets of the Bangkok Treaty. It is time to invoke Articles 12 and 13 of the Treaty that allow the group to begin an investigation of these assertions and force Burma to come clean.  Citizens of this populous region may not feel threatened today or next year, but they will never know when they can feel safe without resolution of this issue.

Robert Kelley is a recently retired director of the IAEA in nuclear non-proliferation efforts. This article appears on Thailand's English-language newspaper The Nation on October 26.

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