- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has asked Myanmar’s reclusive military junta to allow the agency’s inspectors to visit amid growing concern that the Southeast Asian nation’s rulers may be trying to build a nuclear weapon.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Department of Safeguards made the request, according to diplomatic sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter.

A signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Myanmar has concluded a safeguards agreement with the IAEA with a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP). The SQP is designed for states that have little or no nuclear material and no nuclear material in facilities.

“Based on this agreement, Myanmar would be expected to inform the IAEA no later than six months prior to operating a nuclear facility,” said Giovanni Verlini, an IAEA spokesman based in Vienna, Austria. “If Myanmar were to operate such a facility, it would be subject to IAEA safeguards inspections, like similar facilities in other states.”

Mr. Verlini declined to confirm the agency’s request to the regime.

Myanmar’s nuclear program reportedly is managed by the Directorate of Defense Services Science and Technology Research Center (DDSSTRC), which is located in May Myo at the Defense Services Technological Academy.

The junta denies that it is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Robert Kelley, a former director of the IAEA, expressed skepticism and said inspectors must visit Myanmar. “The legal question is ‘Where do they go and on what basis?’ If Burma says ‘no,’ there is no legal basis to force them right now,” he said in a phone interview. Myanmar also is known as Burma.

In its efforts to promote wider adherence to its safeguards system, the IAEA has invited Myanmar to conclude an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement and amend its SQP in line with the revised text approved by the IAEA Board of Governors in September 2005.

The Additional Protocol would grant the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites, Mr. Verlini said.

On an earlier visit to Myanmar, IAEA inspectors had asked to see the factories where equipment for suspected facilities is manufactured, but ended up seeing only a university physics laboratory.

According to a 2004 U.S. Embassy cable, leaked by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, a businessman said he had heard rumors that a nuclear reactor was being built near Minbu, in central Magway Division on the Irawaddy River in Myanmar.

Last summer, Maj. Sai Thein Win, who defected from Myanmar, told a dissident group that the junta was trying to build a nuclear weapon. Maj. Win had worked in factories that manufactured prototype components for missile and nuclear programs.

A report, commissioned by the Democratic Voice of Burma, said that while the military may not be successful in its efforts, “the intent is clear.” It said its analysis led to “only one conclusion: this technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

Mr. Kelley reviewed the data.

“We have satellite imagery of a mining-related facility in roughly the place identified by the source. I think it is likely a uranium mill, but to stake IAEA reputation on this is a bit shaky,” Mr. Kelley said.

“I know a number of other sites I suspect and would recommend one if asked, but I have not been asked,” he said. “I would expect the team will probably find nothing if they go, especially if they only visit the headquarters, a university or the factory.”

Western officials suspect North Korea is assisting Myanmar’s nuclear program.

The 2004 cable noted that there was no direct evidence of this alleged cooperation, however, “rumors of ongoing construction of a nuclear reactor are surprisingly consistent and observations of activity … appear to be increasing, as are alleged sightings of North Korean ‘technicians’ inside Burma.”

Another leaked cable, written in November 2009 by the top U.S. official in Yangon, described Myanmar-North Korea cooperation as “opaque.”

“Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes ‘nukes’ is a very open question which remains a very high priority for Embassy reporting,” the cable said.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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