- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

Russian plans to build a nuclear reactor for Burma have introduced yet another thorn into the Bush administration’s prickly relationship with Moscow.

Although the 10-megawatt reactor for low-enriched uranium is envisioned as a research facility, the State Department last week criticized the project as lacking a regulatory framework.

“It’s not a good idea,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. “Burma has neither the regulatory nor the legal framework or safeguard provisions or other kinds of things that you would expect or want to see for a country to be able to handle successfully a nuclear program of this type.”

Mr. Casey said Burma, officially called Myanmar, does not have a nuclear regulatory commission or any safeguards to prevent accidents, environmental damage or proliferation.

“We wouldn’t want to see a project like this move forward until some of those concerns are addressed,” he said.

He added that he had “no idea” what the Russians’ motives for the deal were, but Moscow has signed similar agreements, notably with Iran. However, it stopped cooperating on the Bushehr reactor earlier this year, citing financial issues.

Russia voted to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment in the U.N. Security Council, though the measures do not cover Bushehr.

Russia’s atomic energy agency, Rosatom, said the nuclear center in Burma would be under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but IAEA officials were quoted by wire reports as saying that they were not aware of the project.

Russia and China are major supporters and arms suppliers to Burma’s junta, which is accused by the West of suppressing human rights and denying its citizens basic freedoms. The United States has been particularly critical of its continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thailand, Burma’s neighbor and historical foe, is not worried about a nuclear reactor “as long as it is under the close supervision of the IAEA,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Piriya Khempon. Some analysts think the junta is building the center for status and prestige.

“Other countries in the region, namely Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, have research units and they are all under the supervision of the IAEA,” Mr. Khempon said.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have been strained over issues including energy, democracy and U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

During a visit to Moscow last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to tone down the rhetoric.

“We did talk about the need to keep the temperature down,” she said. “There are going to be old scars to overcome, there is no doubt about that. … But the relationship needs to be free of exaggerated rhetoric.”

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