The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

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. Or Pakistan, which has been selling nuclear secrets to anyone who will buy, decides to help. There is the chance that there is more to this than meets the eye, as what I can analyze is based only on the information and documentation that I have seen. There may be other work taking place elsewhere in the country that we do not know about, and that the source Sai Win does not know about—other parts of the government structure.

Q: What does it mean for the international non-proliferation system if this is not addressed or dealt with?

A: Do we intend to enforce the non proliferation treaty—ever? Or do we just sit and say someone else has got the best of us, and maybe we will stop them next time? For me, the next time is this time. The IAEA has already been pushed out of the game for now, and therefore I think, it is Asean's problem. This is the time to show that you have the will to solve a problem that you have discovered, and nip a problem in the bud.

Q: Since the report came out, is anything actually happening to investigate whether Burma is undertaking a nuclear weapons program?

A: One of the problems here is that the organizations involved in this work do not typically say what they are doing. Burma has told the IAEA three times that there is nothing to investigate. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a lot of follow-up—from the entities or agencies that one would expect to be involved—on the material or with the sources that exposed what may be going on in Burma with regard to a nuclear weapons program.

Related article: “Burma's Nuclear Adventure—The Real Threat” [October 27, 2010];

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