Report says Burma is taking steps toward nuclear weapons program

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

Burma has begun secretly acquiring key components for a nuclear weapons program, including specialized equipment used to make uranium metal for nuclear bombs, according to a report that cites documents and photos from a Burmese army officer who recently fled the country.

The smuggled evidence shows Burma's military rulers taking concrete steps toward obtaining atomic weapons, according to an analysis co-written by an independent nuclear expert. But it also points to enormous gaps in Burmese technical know-how and suggests that the country is many years from developing an actual bomb.

The analysis, commissioned by the dissident group Democratic Voice of Burma, concludes with "high confidence" that Burma is seeking nuclear technology, and adds: "This technology is only for nuclear weapons and not for civilian use or nuclear power."

"The intent is clear, and that is a very disturbing matter for international agreements," said the report, co-authored by Robert E. Kelley, a retired senior U.N. nuclear inspector. Officials for the dissident group provided copies of the analysis to the broadcaster al-Jazeera, The Washington Post and a few other news outlets.

Hours before the report's release, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) announced that he was canceling a trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar, to await the details. "It is unclear whether these allegations have substantive merit," Webb, who chairs a Senate Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, said in a statement released by his office. "[But] until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma."

There have been numerous allegations in the past about secret nuclear activity by Burma's military rulers, accounts based largely on ambiguous satellite images and uncorroborated stories by defectors. But the new analysis is based on documents and hundreds of photos smuggled out of the country by Sai Thein Win, a Burmese major who says he visited key installations and attended meetings at which the new technology was demonstrated.

The trove of insider material was reviewed by Kelley, a U.S. citizen who served at two of the Energy Department's nuclear laboratories before becoming a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Kelley co-wrote the opposition group's report with Democratic Voice of Burma researcher Ali Fowle.

Among the images provided by the major are technical drawings of a device known as a bomb-reduction vessel, which is chiefly used in the making of uranium metal for fuel rods and nuclear-weapons components. The defector also released a document purporting to show a Burmese government official ordering production of the device, as well as photos of the finished vessel.

Other photographs show Burmese military officials and civilians posing beside a device known as a vacuum glove box, which also is used in the production of uranium metal. The defector describes ongoing efforts on various phases of a nuclear-weapons program, from uranium mining to work on advanced lasers used in uranium enrichment. Some of the machinery used in the Burmese program appears to have been of Western origin.

The report notes that the Burmese scientists appear to be struggling to master the technology and that some processes, such as laser enrichment, likely far exceed the capabilities of the impoverished, isolated country.

"Photographs could be faked," it says, "but there are so many and they are so consistent with other information and within themselves that they lead to a high degree of confidence that Burma is pursuing nuclear technology."

A Washington-based nuclear weapons analyst who reviewed the report said the conclusions about Burma's nuclear intentions appeared credible. "It's just too easy to hide a program like this," said Joshua H. Pollack, a consultant to the U.S. government.

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