Experts Question Reports of Secret Myanmar Nuclear Program

Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

Several experts have questioned the claims of two defectors from Myanmar that their home nation is operating a secret nuclear program that might be aimed at weapons production, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, Aug. 10).

The two men, interviewed extensively by a strategic analyst and a journalist over the course of two years, said they were part of a clandestine effort aided by North Korea to construct an underground nuclear facility capable of producing weapon-grade plutonium. They also said Myanmar had supplied "yellowcake" uranium to North Korea and Iran, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

However, Trevor Wilson, Australia's former ambassador to Myanmar, argued that defectors in generally should not be automatically believed.

"I wasn't entirely convinced the evidence they were sitting was pointing to a nuclear weapons program. It could have been a nuclear power program," Wilson said. "There's plenty of evidence of a military relationship [between Myanmar and North Korea] and also a suggestion over a long period that the Burmese army is interested in acquiring missiles from a country like North Korea, but not necessarily a nuclear-armed missile."

Wilson added that while Myanmar possesses uranium, nothing suggests that is in the business of processing the ore to produce "yellowcake, or anything else for that matter." Still, he said it was plausible that Myanmar's military government might trade the ore itself for missiles and conventional weapons.

He said Myanmar would have no strategic reason for developing nuclear arms, since it had no nuclear-armed enemies.

"Why would the Burmese army want to acquire nuclear weapons for national security?" Wilson said. "It would actually make them a target. It wouldn't help them with any threats they face, which are all of a conventional nature" (Bill Tarrant, Reuters I, Aug. 11).

While satellite photos do suggest a network of underground tunnels in Myanmar, some analysts say they are located in an unlikely spot for a nuclear reactor, Reuters reported.

The alleged site of the underground facility is too far from a water source to pipe in sufficient coolant for a nuclear reactor, analyst Sean O'Connor wrote last week on the Arms Control Wonk blog.

Another analyst, Mark Hibbs of the online publication Nuclear Fuel, said the structure shown in satellite images is probably "a non-nuclear industrial workshop or machinery center."

While some satellite photos "do indeed depict tunnel entrances and indoor or underground storage facilities," stated the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, those structures "are likely not nuclear industrial facilities" (Reuters II, Aug. 11).

No comments: