Saturday, August 1, 2009

Burma's nuclear bomb alive and ticking

Talk to regional security authorities or their embassy staff about Burma having a nuclear programme and it usually generates two responses - total disbelief or horror. Strategic defence studies expert Professor Desmond Ball and journalist Phil Thornton spent two years investigating rumours, speculation, misinformation and the small truths that all help to conceal the Burmese military regime's nuclear ambitions from serious examination

Published: 2/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum

Our own starting position was one of deep skepticism, but the testimonies from two defectors forced us to consider the uncomfortable possibilities of a Burma with nuclear capability.

In June 2007, we began separate interviews with two Burmese defectors in what would become the first in a series of clandestine meetings in dingy rooms and safe-houses that would continue until early July 2009. We first interviewed Moe Jo*, a Burmese army defector, on the Thai-Burma border. Moe Jo had recently crossed the border into Thailand and was still in the initial stage of fright brought on by his flight from the army and loss of community support. His hands shook and he worried about what price his family would have to pay for his actions.

Before rejecting his country's nuclear plans Moe Jo was an officer with 10 years of exemplary army service and a former graduate of Burma's prestigious Defence Services Academy.

In 2003 Moe Jo was selected by the regime to spend two years studying at Moscow's Engineering Physics Institute in the Faculty of Experimental and Theoretical Physics. He says he was sent to Moscow to study engineering and did not know he would end up in the nuclear project. He was in the second batch of 75 trainees sent to Russia as part of Burma's nuclear programme to train 1,000.

We also held a series of interviews in 2008 with a civilian, Tin Min*, who before defecting, worked as a bookkeeper for Tay Za, a business tycoon and close associate of senior Burmese army generals, including General Than Swe. Tay Za's company, Htoo Trading Company, organised the nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea. Tin Min spoke excellent English and presented his reports to us with a touch of self-importance. Tin Min had good reason to know what it was like to feel important. Before defecting, he had scaled the heights of his country's high-society and had reaped the benefits of that position. Tin Min insisted Burma's rationale for having a nuclear programme was nonsense.

"They [regime] say it's to produce medical isotopes for health purposes in hospitals. How many hospitals in Burma have nuclear science? Burma can barely get electricity up and running. It's a nonsense."

* See companion report: Time for a close look at Burma's nuclear programme

* Also: Report reveals Burma's 2014 nukes target

Considering the World Health Organisation ranks Burma's health system as the second worst out of 192 countries and the regime spends more than 40% of its budget on the military and less than 3% on health and education, it is unlikely Burma is developing and investing in a nuclear reactor for health reasons.


What the defectors told us, and access to transcripts of Burmese Army communications, helped us straighten out much of the confusion and speculation on the public record. It has been widely reported that a nuclear reactor has been built at eight or nine different sites in Burma.

The defectors' detailed and adamant testimonies, coupled with the radio transcripts, contradict this - they say Burma has no more than two reactors, one located at Myaing and the other at Naung Laing.

But not everyone in the region agrees about the extent or the purpose of the Naung Laing operation. A senior regional security officer with extensive up-to-date inside information about the area disagrees.

"Before it was a heavily guarded 'no-go zone'. Now you can drive right up to the buildings. Villagers are allowed to grow crops again. Even though the signs say; 'Military Science and Technology Ministry' and there are soldiers, the level of security has been drastically reduced. I think it's now a decoy site, to distract people away from the Myaing area."

The Myaing reactor is located in Magwe division and is known as the "Nyaungone Project". It is part of the MOU signed with Russia's atomic energy agency Rosatom (the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency) in May 2007 to build a 10-megawatt light-water reactor using 20 % enriched Uranium-235, nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities, an activation analysis laboratory, medical isotope production laboratory and to train 300 specialists for the nuclear centre.

At the time, a US State Department deputy spokesman, Tom Casey, was reported as saying that the US "wouldn't like to see a project like this move forward" until Burma has an adequate nuclear regulatory and security infrastructure in place.

The second "secret" or military reactor site that the defectors provided a large amount of detailed information about is built inside the smallest of three mountains by North Koreans at Naung Laing. Both the defectors agreed the underground mountain facilities house another 10-megawatt light-water research reactor.

Cooperation between North Korea and the Burmese regime on nuclear matters began in earnest in September 2000 when a MOU was signed by Burma's Lieutenant General Thein Hla and North Korea's Major General Kim Chan Su. Four more detailed contracts were signed in 2001-02.

The "official" agreements between the two countries covered nuclear related activities at two sites and involved North Korea's assistance to help with installing, maintaining, training and supplying equipment at the uranium refining and enrichment plant at Thabike Kyin. At the second reactor site at Naung Laing the North Koreans agreed to help with the construction of an underground facility and a nuclear reactor. Tin Min's old boss Tay Za paid a construction company in 2004-05 to build a tunnel wide enough for two 10-wheel trucks to pass each other. Moe Jo said the regime had taken steps to defend their reactors by installing air defence radar, one to be "deployed" at the airbase at Pyin Oo Lwin and the other at the reactor site.

In recent months as North Korea struts its nuclear capacity it has forged closer ties with the Burmese regime by selling arms and missile technology to them.

The defectors told us that the Burmese army has been building since 2002 a nuclear research and engineering centre in the vicinity of Naung Laing village, south east of Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Division. Pyin Oo Lwin is also home to the Defence Services Academy, Moe Jo's old alumni. Moe Jo said he was told that after he returned from Moscow he would be assigned to a special nuclear battalion at one of the nuclear sites in Burma.

''After I came back from Russia I was assigned to develop a system to fire 155 howitzers. But first I had to do three months training, run by [North] Korean technicians, on using artillery missile systems.''


Uranium mining takes place at at least 10 locations in Burma. Burma's Ministry of Energy has identified five areas with confirmed deposits of low-grade uranium. Ore samples have reportedly been sent to Russia and Iran for evaluation. At Taundwingyi, next to one of the uranium sites identified by the Ministry of Energy, the North Koreans have built a large underground bunker. In addition to these sites, high resolution imagery published by GoogleEarth in 2007 shows what many believe is a uranium mine and related refinery at Myit Nge Chaung, about 23km from Mandalay.

In April 2009, it was reported that reactor-grade uranium for Burma's nuclear programme was being mined near Lashio in northern Shan State.

According to radio transcripts, Russian uranium prospectors made three exploration missions to Tennasserim Division in southern Burma in 2004-05. The Russian explorers' movements were tracked as they flew from Rangoon on July 8, 2004, to Myeik and their subsequent prospecting around the area of Theindaw from July 18 to October 5, 2004.


Burma has at least two uranium refining and processing plants in operation for crushing, grinding, cleaning and milling (refining) the uranium ore into ''yellowcake'' (U308), a concentrate of uranium oxides in powder form. Yellow cake is later converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for enrichment to provide fuel for reactors or fissle material for nuclear weapons. Tin Min claims that businessman Tay Za told him the regime has nuclear dreams, and they are serious.

''They're aware they cannot compete with Thailand with conventional weapons. They [the regime] want to play nuclear poker like North Korea. They hope to combine the nuclear and air defence missiles. Tay Za told me the nuclear programme is known as the 'UF6 Project' and is the responsibility of General Maung Aye.''

Both processing plants are close to the Irrawaddy River, one is seven kilometres from the river and is near the Tha Pa Na Military Science and Technology Development Center and the other plant is near the Thabike Kyin township.

Being close to the river allows the regime to use barges to transport the heavy ore rather than rely on the inadequate roads.

Tin Min says as Tay Za controls much of the shipping in and out of Burma it is easy for him to organise getting the equipment to the nuclear sites from Rangoon.

''He arranges for army trucks to pick up the containers of equipment from the North Korean boats that arrive in Rangoon and transport them at night by highway to the river or direct to the sites.''

Moe Jo estimated that there were more than five North Koreans working at the Thabike Kyin plant. He said Russian cleaning machines were used to ''wash'' the ore and that Burma has provided yellowcake to both North Korea and Iran.

GoogleEarth imagery published in 2007 shows a facility with what looks like four giant ''thickening tanks'' in which the uranium bearing solution is separated from the ground ore before being converted to yellowcake.


The essence of Moe Jo and Tin Win's testimonies is that Burma has key parts of the nuclear fuel cycle already in place. Moe Jo told us that the army ''planned'' to build a plutonium reprocessing plant at Naung Laing, and that Russian experts were already ''teaching plutonium reprocessing'' at the site.

A ''nuclear battalion'' was established by the regime in 2000 to work on the ''weaponisation'' aspects of the nuclear programme. It is based near the village of Taungdaw, just west of the Naung Laing complex. The operations component is in another underground complex in the nearby Setkhya Mountains. It includes engineering, artillery and communications on operational aspects of weapons design, delivery capability and a command and control centre.

Moe Jo says by 2012, Burma will have 1,000 people trained, access to uranium, is refining yellowcake and has two light water reactors.

''You don't need 1,000 people in the fuel cycle or to run a nuclear reactor. It's obvious there is much more going on.''

These reactors are not as efficient in producing fissionable plutonium as heavy-water reactors, but as North Korea has shown with their reactor, it may be slow and more complex, but it is capable. For Burma to be able to extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods and to separate plutonium-239 from plutonium-240 it needs to construct a plutonium reprocessing plant so it can produce seven to eight kilograms of weapon-grade Plutonium-239 a year, enough for one bomb a year.

In the event that the testimonies of the defectors are proved, the alleged ''secret'' reactor could be capable of being operational and producing one bomb a year, every year, after 2014.

A Burmese nuclear weapons programme would require external support, going beyond rudimentary Russian training and North Korean assistance with the current uranium refining capabilities and reactor operations. But North Korea taking on a greater role in helping Burma get its bomb cannot be rule out. They would be more than interested in providing limited amounts of fissionable plutonium in return for yellowcake.

It would be in North Korea's military interest, and in line with their nuclear posturing, to construct a secret plutonium reprocessing plant in Burma, complementing the secret reactor, in exchange for access to the fissionable product. The defectors talked explicitly of the regime meeting their nuclear programme objectives by having a ''handful of bombs ready by 2020''.

According to all the milestones identified by the defectors, Burma's nuclear programme is on schedule.

It is feasible and achievable. Unfortunately, it is not as bizarre or ridiculous as many people would like to think. Burma's regional neighbours need to watch carefully, especially for signs of a reprocessing plant. If the regime starts building that then the only explanation is that they plan to build a bomb.

A Burma with nuclear capability is a worry, if the regime's response to last year's Cyclone Nargis is a benchmark.

Their response was to treat it as a national security threat, by banning journalists, ignoring offers of outside help for weeks, while leaving their people to die in their thousands. The region cannot expect any more from the regime if there is any sort of nuclear accident.

* Not their real names

* Professor Desmond Ball works at the Australian National University's Defence Studies Centre. He is the author of more than 40 books on nuclear strategy, Australian defence, and security in the Asia-Pacific. He has served as the co-chair of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.

* Phil Thornton is the author of Restless Souls: rebels, refugee, medics misfits on the Thai Burma border.

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