The authors of the textbook are two scientists at the Bhabba Atomic Research Center (BARC) in India. The United States sanctioned BARC after India's 1998 nuclear tests, because it is the beating heart of the Indian nuclear weapons program. India has a gas centrifuge program for enriching uranium located near Mysore, which operates under the cover of being a "rare metals plant." (The United States also sanctioned Indian Rare Earths, which operates the plant.)
So, a Department of Atomic Energy might plausibly engage in rare earths extraction given the similar technologies. But it might also use rare earths extraction as a cover for a military uranium enrichment program. Damned inconvenient, eh?
Burma also appears to maintain a unit called the "Number 1 Science and Technology Battalion" in a jungle facility near Thabeikkyin. That unit apparently requested production of a bomb reduction vessel from the factory in Myaing. Documents posted by DictatorWatch, describing the layout of the facility, are consistent with overhead images of a site located at: 22° 57' 29.59" N, 96° 5' 51.02" E. In addition to the satellite images, there are a small number of photographs of a visit to a construction site that perfectly matches the topography and layout of the buildings. Here's one showing the VIP visitor:
Why, unless I am very much mistaken, it's our old friend Ko Ko Oo. The presence of the senior DAE official at the site on what would appear to be an inspection tour suggests a nuclear purpose for the facility.
If neither the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment nor the workshop near Nuang Laing are related to some sort of nuclear program, I'd really like to understand what the director of the Department of Atomic Energy was doing at both locations. And why is another of the machine shops producing equipment for the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment? And why are the personnel at the civilian workshop posing in olive drab? I can come up possible explanations, but why should I have to guess? Dr. Ko Ko Oo could perhaps provide some insight here.
So, let's recap. Burma's military went on a shopping expedition to North Korea that included a tour of a ballistic missile factory, signing of a defense MOU, and dinner with the proliferator-in-chief. Burma's Department of Atomic Energy also attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia and sent students to train in subjects such as reprocessing. Dr. Ko Ko Oo also was involved in the procurement of machine tools from foreign suppliers to establish two workshops that supply a military facility carved out of the jungle.
Golly, a fellow could get real suspicious.
I hasten to add that I have not included the wilder rumors about covert nuclear reactors and so forth. There is a lot of garbage out there about Burma's nuclear program. (Poor David Albright has had his hands full shooting down a lot of this silliness including some nonsense relating to tunnels. What is it about tunneling that makes people crazy?) Cables from Wikileaks demonstrate the very, uh, uneven quality of reporting. Worst of all, the dissident groups have turned on one another claiming credit for this discovery or that.
But despite all this drama, there is no "smoking gun," as former IAEA safeguard head Olli Heinonen has cautioned, that proves Burma is, or was, seeking a nuclear weapon.
Burma's motives are unclear. Perhaps some members of the Burmese junta believe that nuclear weapons would shield the regime from foreign pressure. Perhaps the Ministry of Science and Technology sees the extraction of rare earths as a future source of hard currency. And perhaps the machine tools they produced were intended for another country. But the workshop near Nuang Laing reminds me of the workshop that AQ Khan attempted to establish in nearby Malaysia. Whatever it is, something is going on. I would bloody well like to know what it is.
The Obama administration claims it is serious about ensuring that nonproliferation is part of its policy of engaging Burma. On the other hand, the anonymous officials cited by Pro Publica leave me with the impression that they worry too much attention to Dr. Ko Ko Oo's activities might disturb the delicate transition to civilian rule. These officials may calculate that democratization in Burma will move much faster than programs to develop ballistic missiles or nuclear technology. In October, Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters that although Burma's leaders "made a strategic decision to...ultimately end these relationships with North Korea...it's a work in process. It was a long relationship that the two countries had and so it does take some time to work through it." It will be interesting to see how patient Congress will be.
Still, if the administration is reluctant to press for a full accounting of Burma's nuclear activities in the near-term, there are some more modest steps that we might seek:
- In late 2010, the IAEA director-general reportedly sent a letter to the Burmese government, requesting that the country "provide information about reports suggesting it was engaging in suspicious nuclear activities." Burma should oblige, providing access to facilities and associated personnel at Myaing, Nuang Laing, and Thabeikkyin.
- Senior Burmese officials have indicated they would consider signing an Additional Protocol, a stronger nuclear safeguards agreement created in response to Iraq's efforts to evade safeguards in the 1980s. Just do it, already. It also wouldn't hurt if Burma reported its uranium mining and milling activities.
- Russia and Burma should provide the IAEA details about the scope and size of training programs conducted for Burmese citizens. Who were these students? What did they study? Where are they today?
- Burma, we are told, has made a strategic decision to suspend defense cooperation with North Korea, but it should report the extent of its past dealings to the United Nations, starting with the full text of the purported MOU.
These steps fall well short of a complete accounting of Burma's nuclear activities, but they would offer some assurance that Burma is not actively pursuing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons while it is seeking to end its international isolation.