Transparency Needed in Burma's Nuclear Program

By MAUNG THUTA Wednesday, August 5, 2009

(This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of The Irrawaddy)

The news that Burma plans to build a nuclear research center with Russia’s help has created a storm in a teacup among critics of the military regime, including opposition groups within the democratic movement abroad as well as some quarters in the US government.

The memorandum of understanding for supplying Burma with a 10-megawatt thermal research reactor and associated equipment created anxiety about the junta’s nuclear ambitions because of the lack of transparency and the military’s notorious record of human right violations, political repression and poor economic performance, as well as its long-standing quarrel with the West over the lack of political and economic reforms.

The MOU was signed by Burma’s Minister of Science and Technology U Thaung, a loyal protégé of junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe and former classmate of Vice-Chairman Maung Aye, and Russia’s AtomStroyExport, a joint stock company under the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Atomic Energy.

In their rush to cast doubts on the regime’s peaceful intentions, with some quarters even speculating on a hidden agenda for nuclear weapons development, the skeptics and the alarmists have missed out, however, on a historical perspective regarding Burma’s quest for nuclear know-how.

More than five decades ago, Kyaw Nyein, the pragmatic modernist among the ruling triumvirate, with U Nu and Ba Swe, and the driving force behind Burma’s nascent industrialization, oversaw the setting up in 1953, under the Ministry of Industry, of the Union of Burma Applied Research Institute (UBARI), in collaboration with the American Armour Research Foundation.

Towards the end of 1955, the Atomic Energy Centre (AEC) and the Atomic Minerals Department were set up, while dozens of bright young scholars and technicians were sent abroad, mainly to the US, for postgraduate studies in health physics, nuclear physics, nuclear, metallurgical and mining engineering and technical training in nuclear applications in instrumentation, agriculture and industry.

Most returned to Burma and served in UBARI, at Rangoon and Mandalay universities and in the agriculture research department. Only one, Thein Oo Po Saw, among this pioneering batch of state scholars under the tutelage of Hla Nyunt, head of AEC and trained in Japan before Burma’s independence, remains in government service. He is an adviser to the Ministry of Science and Technology and adjunct professor at the Yangon Technological University.

Burma attended the first International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in August 1955 and also joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when it was founded in 1957. Soon, the AEC was elevated in status as the Union of Burma Atomic Energy Center.

In the late 1950s, at the dawn of the “Atomic Age,” Burma’s nuclear elites centered around the UBAEC apparently had no doubts about propelling Burma into a modern industrial state through extensive research and development in the fields of power production, agriculture, medicine, industry and education.

However, the first phase of nuclear ambitions faltered and stagnated within a few years when the much-vaunted “Pyidawthar” industrial plan failed and UBAEC patron Kyaw Nyein fell from grace amid disputes among the ruling political elite.

After the military coup ended parliamentary democracy in March 1962 other priorities prevailed over the quest for nuclear knowledge and atomic power and the luster of the UBAEC was lost.

With the Cold War in full swing and the promise of cheap nuclear power unfulfilled, Burma’s nuclear ambitions remained on hold. Burma’s strict neutrality foreclosed the option of obtaining aid in the nuclear field offered by both the US and Russia, although many developing countries received nuclear research reactors and research facilities. Hla Nyunt left Burma to work as a senior official in the IAEA and died abroad.

Nevertheless, a handful of first and second generation foreign-trained physicists and scientists in the major universities and UBARI continued teaching as well as conducting basic and applied research in nuclear sciences. They harbored hopes of establishing a nuclear research centre and perhaps a nuclear research reactor with the help of the IAEA and government support.

A nuclear laboratory for undergraduates, graduate students and researchers had been in operation in the then Rangoon Arts and Science University since the early 1960s, with technical support from the IAEA and friendly governments. Nuclear physics was also taught as a compulsory subject in advanced undergraduate courses, and as an elective in master degree courses under the new education system of “majoring” introduced in 1964.

Mandalay University followed suit a few years later.

Similarly, UBARI continued to maintain the research library and information center set up in the late 1950s and conducted research and development works in instrumentation, radioisotope applications, health physics, radiation monitoring, industrial applications and minerals assaying. It also continued to receive IAEA technical aid in the form of equipment, training and experts.

In the late 1960s, the military Revolutionary Council set up a cabinet level research supervisory body called the Research Policy Direction Board with staff support from the Ministry of Planning and Finance, which later authorized the formation of an Atomic Energy Committee under its auspices. During the 1970s, this committee oversaw various aspects of nuclear research in Burma and the acquisition of a “mini” nuclear research reactor was mooted.

A scaled-down version of the American TRIGA (Training, Research Isotope production, General Atomic) design then being offered at less than US $500,000 was considered at that time, but the plans never materialized because of a severe shortage of foreign exchange and the lack of a “patron” in the corridors of power of the one-party socialist regime.

Apparently, U Thaung has now found a patron in the person of junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, flush with foreign exchange earned from gas sales. He appears confident that the Department of Atomic Energy, set up in 1997 under his ministry (formed the year previously), can handle the task of establishing a reactor-based nuclear research center.

He will doubtless point to the long-standing tradition of nuclear research and development work in Burma over the past five decades and the almost decade-old practice of training nuclear professionals at home (mainly YTU and Yangon and Mandalay universities) and abroad (mainly Russia) when questions arise as to the capability of effectively and safely running such a center in Burma.

The crucial question, however, is not so much competence but transparency and the wisdom of spending so much hard-earned money (anything from $10 million to $100 million, with annual running costs running into hundreds of thousands of dollars) in a poor country with an urgent need for basic amenities like clean water and reliable electricity.

Maung Thuta is a Burmese scholar living in exile.

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