The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Russia to Build Nuclear Facility in Burma
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom, has agreed to help design and build a nuclear research center in Burma, according to a statement issued by the agency o­n Tuesday.

The agreement—described in a Rosatom press release as an “intergovernmental cooperation agreement”—was signed in Moscow by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s atomic agency, and Burma’s visiting science and technology minister U Thaung.

The research center will include a 10-megawatt light-water reactor using 20 percent enriched uranium-235 fuel, the press release said.

It added that the facility would also include “an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, silicon doping system, nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities.”

Rosatom said the agreement was made “to deepen and broaden the beneficial economic and scientific ties between the two countries, and that the project would be under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A subsidiary of Rosatom—the state-owned Atomstroiexport—will handle construction of the nuclear facility, though several details about the agreement, including the facility’s location in Burma, remain unknown.

Burma’s efforts to build the nuclear facility date back to December 2000 when U Thaung made a similar visit to Moscow. Almost a year later, Burma formally approached the IAEA for assistance in acquiring a research reactor.

A subsequent agreement with Russia’s nuclear energy ministry, known as Minatom, was reached in May 2002, whereby the two countries would “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,” according to sources quoted by William Ashton in “Burma’s Nuclear Program: Dream or Nightmare?” (The Irrawaddy, May 2004).

The previous agreement was reportedly called off in 2003 because of disputes over how Burma would pay for the project. But since that time, about 300 Burmese military officers have reportedly been studying nuclear science in Russia.

Tuesday’s announcement of a new agreement suggests that Burma now has the capital to proceed, and observers say the likely source of that capital is the country’s vast natural gas reserves. Companies from Russia, India, Thailand, South Korea and elsewhere have bid o­n the rights to explore Burma’s substantial o­n- and offshore gas fields. Sales to Thailand alone in 2007 are said to be worth nearly US $1 billion.

No details have yet been released about where the new research facility will be built, but sources along the Thai-Burmese border say Burma’s military government have settled o­n the central Burma township of Pwint Phyu in Magwe Division.

Htay Aung, a military analyst based o­n the border, said this location is at a safe distance from highly populated cities in Burma and has easy access to the Mone Chaung Dam.

“The area is protected naturally by the Arakan mountain range to the west and the Irrawaddy River to the east,” Htay Aung said. “So the regime may feel it is a geographically secure location.”

Burma is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as well as the 1995 Bangkok Treaty, which includes a reaffirmation by Asean member states of bans imposed by the NNP treaty o­n the “development, manufacture, possession, control, stationing or transport, testing or use of nuclear weapons.”

Russia has become a major supporter and supplier of arms to Burma’s military regime since the US and EU imposed sanctions in response to the country’s poor human rights record.

News of the agreement comes at a time when relations between the US and Russia have weakened, and as the US is currently pursuing sanctions against Iran for its efforts to develop an allegedly civilian nuclear program.

Russia is also providing assistance to Iran in the construction of nuclear reactors, saying Iran has a right to civilian nuclear power.

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