OF A NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM
THREAT ASSESSMENT FOR BURMA
By Roland Watson
November 14, 2009
the last three years, Dictator Watch has published intelligence about Burma's
nuclear program from nine different sources. Information from well over ten
other sources, including United States, South Korean and Indian intelligence
agencies, has also been published by other NGOs and the media. There is a huge
amount of intel now in the public domain. This article is an attempt to organize
this information in a new manner, to illustrate more clearly what has been revealed
- and may reasonably be conjectured - about the SPDC's program to obtain an
That this program is real was underlined by Secretary Clinton's statement last July of U.S. concern "about the transfer of nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons" from North Korea to Burma. It was also affirmed by the recent comment of California Congressman Ed Royce, in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, and questioning the Obama Administration's engagement policy with the SPDC, that the United States has five national security issues with Burma:
- North Korea is using Burma to transfer arms and contraband.
- Burma is buying technology applicable to a nuclear program.
- North Korean arms companies are very active in Burma.
- The U.S. blocked a North Korean cargo flight from proceeding from Burma to Iran.
- North Korea is helping to construct systems of tunnels in Burma, some of which will be used for nuclear facilities.
All of this raises an obvious question: How does one obtain an atomic bomb? What are the different steps in this process, and for each such step what is known about Burma?
In summary, a nuclear weapons program consists of the following elements:
1. Prospect for commercial grade uranium ore deposits and then mine the ore.
2. Mill the ore into a substance known as yellowcake (concentrated uranium powder). This is the first instance in which a security threat arises, because yellowcake, although of low radioactivity (emission of gamma particles), can be used by terrorists in a "dirty bomb."
3. Enrich the uranium. This involves mixing the yellowcake with fluorine to obtain uranium hexafluoride (this process requires a number of additional steps), and then melting and pressurizing the result to obtain uranium hexafluoriude gas. The gas is subsequently processed with centrifuges or via diffusion filtration to increase the percentage of the U-235 isotope. At low concentrations, the product may be used as reactor fuel (1-2% for heavy water reactors, 3-5% for light water reactors, and 12-20% for research reactors). At high concentrations (85% or more), it is suitable for manufacturing a bomb.
This is the second instance in which a threat arises, in this case of the production of an actual atomic weapon. However, one needs thousands of centrifuges to obtain enough U-235, and weapons require a number of additional components and steps in their manufacture, including testing.
4. Construct a nuclear reactor, using low-enriched uranium as the fuel. Plutonium may be extracted from spent reactor fuel, with heavy water reactors yielding greater quantities. This plutonium can then be used to construct an atomic bomb. Further, there is an additional security risk at this stage, albeit local, of a reactor accident, such as occurred at Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the U.S.
5. Develop or acquire weapon delivery systems, such as ballistic or cruise missiles, which may also be used to convey high explosive and chemical and biological arms.
6. For such delivery systems, atomic weapons need to be miniaturized, to meet payload limits.
7. Where the technical and production capability is not available locally to complete any of the above steps, secure assistance from external parties. It is also conceivable that one could circumvent all of these steps and purchase a functional atomic bomb ready-made, including potentially of the miniaturized variety.
Uranium ore and mining
That Burma contains deposits of uranium ore is well known, and was even acknowledged by the SPDC itself on a page of its Ministry of Energy website (this page is now offline), which called for tenders from international mining companies. At least some of these deposits therefore are likely to be commercial. Dictator Watch sources have identified over ten ore deposits. The Kachin News Group in August 2009 revealed that since 2007 Russia has been extracting and shipping high grade raw uranium ore from mines in the Hpakant area.
Uranium milling and barter
Dictator Watch reported in November 2006 that the SPDC has a uranium mill at Thabeikkyin and that it is bartering yellowcake to North Korea and Iran. This intelligence was from a source that to our knowledge no one else has published. We subsequently received confirmation of such milling and barter in early 2007 and also 2008, including from other sources. The BBC's Burmese Service confirmed uranium milling from its own sources in August 2007. Ball and Thornton's "Tin Min" source was quoted in an Asia Times article this past August as saying that Burma businessman Tayza's Htoo Trading Company was involved in arranging shipments of uranium to North Korea, and he also confirmed Iranian contacts with the SPDC.
Dictator Watch further published satellite images of a suspected uranium mine and mill on the Myit Nge River. There are at least two mills currently in operation, and we note that most commercial mines would have associated mills, to reduce ore transport costs.
There is now little doubt that the SPDC is supplying uranium to the secret enrichment programs of both North Korea and Iran. These programs are the two most serious nuclear weapon proliferation threats in the world today, and both nations are the subject of United Nations Security Council sanctions (North Korea - Resolution 1874, Iran - Resolution 1737), of which the SPDC trade is a clear violation.
Dictator Watch also published in 2007 news that yellowcake had been offered for sale in Bangkok. We now understand that this was by at least two sets of Burmese brokers (and which trade may be ongoing), one of which referred to a sixty kilogram supply at a nearby industrial estate. (Note: This supply was never confirmed, but according to our sources the brokers appeared legitimate.) For reference, the discovery of five pounds of yellowcake (2.3 kg) in 2003 in Rotterdam (not from Burma) was international news. As noted, uranium is not an ideal substance for a dirty bomb, but even so the psychological effect of such a weapon attack on, say, New York City, Paris or Tokyo, would be incalculable. In the sixty kilogram case the brokers said that the supply originated from a Wa general. They also said they could provide industrial quantities, but demanded an amount far in excess of the world uranium price.
We were the first party, in January 2007, to report the possibility of a uranium enrichment program in Burma. Our sources subsequently revealed that an enrichment facility is being developed in Thabeikkyin, which is supported by the recent news that the SPDC bought equipment that could be used to make centrifuges from a North Korean company through a Japanese trader, who has just been found guilty in a related court case.
The SPDC instituting uranium enrichment is an extremely worrying development. However, there is as yet no evidence that the scale of the operation is large enough to produce the quantities of U-235 required for weapons production. It should, though, be subjected to close scrutiny by the IAEA.
Nuclear reactor and plutonium
Russia signed an agreement in 2000 to provide a light water research reactor to the SPDC, which was a duplicate of the first proliferation step taken in 1964 between the Soviet Union and North Korea. The general reactor location was stated as the Magwe Division, and a number of specific prospective or related sites including Myothit, Natmauk, Taungdwingyi and Myaing have been identified.
The program with Russia was suspended in 2005, when the SPDC experienced financial difficulties. It was resumed in 2007, following the worldwide energy price increases which filled the junta's bank accounts - from sale of natural gas to Thailand through the Total-Chevron Yadana pipeline. (Russia is also being paid in mining concessions.) During the suspension period, the SPDC approached North Korea as an alternative supplier. (The Far Eastern Economic Review reported sightings of North Korean technicians in the Magwe area in 2003, so some form of cooperation had already been established.) Iran was asked for assistance as well.
An Asia Times article in 2004, derived from Indian Intelligence, said that North Korea was paid $2 million to conduct a reactor survey in Myothit, and that the total assistance program would comprise $200 million over several phases. Dictator Watch sources say that the Russian reactor deal was finally concluded, for a used but functional 10 MW reactor, which was to be disassembled, shipped to Burma, and then reassembled, and with startup slated for the end of 2008. Russia would provide the reactor, but North Korea would be heavily involved in its construction and operation. (India had also been approached for a reactor, but refused to provide one if its technicians would not be in charge of the operation.)
North Korea began to sell related reactor technology to the SPDC in 2006, which is the same year that it started to receive yellowcake shipments.
It is at this point that the reactor situation for Burma becomes confused. There is no firm evidence that the Russian reactor has been delivered. Moreover, following a strong earthquake in Magwe in September 2003 (reported by Irrawaddy), suspicion developed that the site was moved to the Setkhya Mountains (which are southeast of Mandalay, long-known to have nuclear related facilities, and which lie near the Myit Nge River). Dictator Watch sources say that a reactor is to be built in Kyauk Pa Toe township of Thabeikkyin, which would complete a vertically-integrated operation there: nearby mines, mill, enrichment facility, and reactor. Ball and Thornton report that there are actually to be two reactors, in Myaing and the Setkhya Mountains. Whatever the site or sites, the program is designed to enable the extraction of plutonium from spent reactor fuel, and the production of sufficient quantities of Plutonium-239 to make atomic weapons.
In 2001, Science and Technology Minister U Thaung said to Burma Army officers who were to be sent to Russia to study nuclear technology that the program's goal was to produce an atomic bomb by 2020. Former Foreign Minister Win Aung, who died recently in Insein Prison, said to such State Scholars at this time that China supported the objective.
This time frame is reasonable for a weapons program based on enriched uranium, provided the SPDC can acquire or manufacture enough centrifuges. Ball and Thornton argue that via the reactor-based plutonium extraction method, the SPDC may be able to build a bomb by 2014. It is also important to recall the option of outright weapon acquisition. Than Shwe is constructing a defense against a foreign military intervention, of which having nuclear arms would be the bulwark. It seems unlikely, considering how - thanks to Total, Chevron and other multi-national corporations - his financial fortunes have improved, that he would not attempt to purchase one directly from North Korea. Of course, he would pursue both uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction programs, in emulation of the North, but as these take years he would inevitably be attracted by a straightforward purchase. (This is also one way that the North could make up for assassinating South Korean officials in Rangoon in 1983.)
Than Shwe has the ability to pay whatever Kim Jong-il might demand, even hundreds of millions of dollars for a single weapon, if need be. (He is so wealthy now that he has constructed an imperial city.)
Note: Such acts do happen. The Washington Post just reported that China in 1982 gave Pakistan enough enriched uranium (50 kilograms), and a basic blueprint, to construct two atomic bombs. The U.S. became aware of, but never disclosed, this transfer.
Dictator Watch has reported a great amount of intelligence about the SPDC's efforts both to acquire and produce a wide variety of missile systems, including land and ship based, SAM, TOW, rockets, and ballistic missiles. The most worrisome of our intelligence is that the SPDC has purchased short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) from North Korea, with a range of 300 miles, and that these have been placed at at least four locations near Burma's border with Thailand. We also reported that both Russia and North Korea are helping the SPDC build factories to produce rockets and other precision-guided munitions.
Missile proliferation to Burma is now well-documented. Kyodo News reported in 2003, from a U.S. intelligence source, that Burma was negotiating to buy North Korean missiles. The Congressional Research Service reported in 2006 the sale of ballistic missiles by North Korea to other countries, although Burma was not mentioned. More recently, the evidence includes the United States efforts in the summer of 2008 (noted by Congressman Royce) to deny a North Korean cargo flight airspace rights over India to fly from Burma to Iran, and which cargo reportedly included missile components; and the U.S. shadowing of the Kang Nam 1 freighter this past summer, which had a similar cargo.
On the other hand, even though the SPDC has acquired sophisticated missile systems, it is unlikely to possess the miniaturization technology necessary to scale down nuclear weapons to the requisite size. Only China, which has developed the technology domestically, and which also secured designs from the U.S. through espionage (the W-88 design), would be in a position to transfer the technology to Burma, and also North Korea, but in the present day would be unlikely to do so to either. (Russia as well can almost certainly be ruled out as a source of the technology.) The only rationale for having such missile systems, therefore, defaults to their use as part of a defense against a foreign intervention.
(One wild card, though, is the presence of Pakistani nuclear scientists Muhammad Ali Mukhtar and Suleiman Asad in Burma since 2001, escapees of the A. Q. Khan network. (Khan was the individual who received the earlier mentioned Chinese enriched uranium.) Both scientists are weapons design experts, and were connected to the charity UTN, other Pakistani scientists from which the CIA learned briefed Osama bin Laden - in mid-2001 - on how to make nuclear weapons. Source - Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, via the History Commons website)
SPDC defense plans
Than Shwe takes the threat of a foreign intervention very seriously. It is one of his principal fears. Over the last few years he has devised and put in place an integrated defense plan.
The first element of this plan is his move to Naypyidaw, which may be viewed as his fort. Distant from the ocean, it would require an invading force to make a lengthy and hazardous incursion. (He is emulating Burma's kings of old.)
For air defense, there are SAM and anti-aircraft batteries spread around the country, in addition to a small fleet of MiG-29s. For defense against a naval approach, he has initiated a plan to produce sea mines, with North Korean assistance. He further has extensive and widely displaced heavy weapons, to counter a ground assault.
Naypyidaw itself has a heavily armed defensive perimeter, with numerous Burma Army battalions, as well as underground command and control bunkers (again, with the associated tunnels built with North Korean assistance, and which Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy have documented).
Perhaps most seriously, our sources say that Than Shwe has designated Thailand as its nearest enemy, and that he has a plan to trigger a military incident with the country in the event that his rule in Burma is threatened. It further appears likely that extortion is a significant element of this plan.
One may deduce that SPDC representatives, in discussion with Thai officials, have made reference to the SRBMs pointed at Thai airbases (including in northern Bangkok). In addition, there is speculation that the SPDC has threatened to cut off the natural gas supply, if, for example, Thailand allows the United States large scale access to its military facilities. It is worth repeating the recent language of the junta's representative, that the SPDC "would not allow" Thailand to be used as a base for attacks against it. You can't make such a bold statement as this, and on Thai soil, without something to back it up.
United States engagement
The U.S. is now engaging the SPDC, supposedly to try something new. It has announced the laudable goals of support for human rights, the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and the promotion of democratic reform. This shift in turn has given many Burmese hope. The sheer presence of some movement after years of stagnation is a welcome relief.
We are sorry to have to say this, but there is no good reason for hope. We at Dictator Watch are cynical. We wonder: what is really behind the new policy?
The U.S. has said that it is "fact-finding," but this is absurd. It already knows the facts. It has reported, annually and for years, the human rights abuses and religious persecution committed by the SPDC. (Of note, Burma under supposedly Buddhist Than Shwe is perhaps the only Buddhist society in history where other religions have been persecuted.)
The U.S. also knows the facts about Burma's nuclear and missile programs, as evidenced by its drone flights over the country and also the blockade of North Korean air and sea cargo shipments. The U.S. undoubtedly has a massive Burma intelligence program, dating to Ne Win's visit to the White House in 1966, if not to World War II.
The United States is trying to buy some time. Given the State Department's announcements that engagement will be a long, slow process, the Administration clearly wants a lot of time.
There is always so much more to diplomacy than what is publicly revealed. For example, the U.S., U.K., and France chose not to make helicopter aid drops to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, even though such aid would have saved many lives. They apparently feared an SPDC attack on the helicopters, which would not only have threatened their personnel but forced a decision on how to respond. These countries could invade Burma, at any time, and the SPDC's defenses notwithstanding, free the country. One would think that they would welcome the opportunity.
Has Than Shwe threatened to rain missiles down on Thailand, thus creating an international incident of such gravity that the U.S. simply must defer? Is the SPDC even already in possession of an atomic weapon, and has it made this fact quietly known?
Again, we should consider the import of the failure of the State Department to publish the JADE Act Section 10 Report on Military and Intelligence Aid to Burma. Secretary Clinton and President Obama, by blocking the report, are breaking a law that they personally approved. In addition, the Act says that the report is to be prepared annually (like the human rights and religious persecution reviews). Will publication of the second edition also be denied next January?
One might argue that the report is being suppressed, so as not to undermine the present engagement. However, consider Iran, with whom the U.S. also is engaging. Washington revealed that Iran has a second, secret uranium enrichment facility in a cave near the city of Qom, and whose purpose can only be weapons related. The policy of engagement with Iran did not block the release of this bombshell.
The only reasonable conclusion about the JADE Act report is that its contents are so incendiary that they simply cannot be disclosed without causing profound international consequences. In the face of this complete lack of transparency, and which flies in the face of President Obama's campaign pledge of openness, one can only assume the worst.
Viewed another way, the threat is apparently so severe that the Administration is using the cover of "pragmatism" to shield its indecisiveness about how to respond.
(Note: A critical point is if the U.S. has told Daw Suu what it knows about the SPDC's nuclear program, or if she is being kept in the dark as well.)
An interesting question is why there are so many intelligence sources out of Burma? Why is the SPDC filled with leaks?
The people of Burma, including the rank and file military, despise the generals. Other than a small clique at the top (and Total, Chevron, etc.), everyone wants change. Mizzima recently published two letters from soldiers of the Tatmadaw, asking the simple question: if we risk our lives to bring down Than Shwe, will you the International Community back us? These soldiers are not asking for boatloads of weapons, simply that the world be prepared to act to neutralize SPDC attempts to suppress such an internal effort at change.
The tipping point for Burma requires international support. This type of act would truly be a step in a new direction. The so-called "new" engagement with the SPDC is actually a continuation of the same old failed policy. It has been packaged this way to deceive, and is not materially different from what has been tried before. Because of this, it is almost certainly bound to fail as well. (Than Shwe, by appearing to show a willingness to cooperate, is also buying time.)
The proper approach is to call the junta's bluff. The lives of the fifty million people in Burma, regional security, and ultimately United States security, are at stake.
President Obama's willingness (or not) in Singapore tomorrow to shake the hand of the front-man of a gang of mass murderers will be an important signal of if U.S. policy truly now supports the Burmese, or if, for all the smoke and mirrors - the flurry of diplomatic visits, nothing has really changed.
With all the U.S. press conferences now being held about Burma, would one journalist with access to them please specifically ask about the missing JADE Act report?