The United States is concerned about the expansion of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with the military-led government in Myanmar — also known as Burma — the U.S. State Department said this week.
“We are deeply concerned with — but not surprised by — Russia’s willingness to expand its material support, including through nuclear energy cooperation, to the repressive regime in Burma (Myanmar),” the State Department said in an emailed statement to VOA on Tuesday. “Russia’s actions are prolonging a crisis that threatens our efforts to advance peace and prosperity with our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific.”
Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, known as ROSATOM, and the Myanmar junta signed the “intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the field of the use of nuclear energy” on February 6.
“This agreement is for the cooperation, not only for the small nuclear power plant, but also the applications of nuclear technology in multiple sectors, and it will enhance the socioeconomic development of the country,” said junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a signing ceremony last Monday at the newly opened Nuclear Technology Information Center in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
The two countries’ cooperation on nuclear energy begins “a new chapter in the history of Russian-Myanmar relations,” ROSATOM Director General Alexey Likhachev said during the signing ceremony. “The creation of a new industry in the country will undoubtedly benefit the energy sector, industry and the economy of Myanmar.”
Cooperation after coup
After the February 2021 coup, military-ruled Myanmar rapidly increased nuclear cooperation with Russia. A spokesperson for the Myanmar junta, Major General Zaw Min Tun, confirmed to VOA last Friday that Myanmar would build a small-scale nuclear reactor with Russia’s assistance.
Zaw Min Tun told VOA Burmese by phone that the junta’s nuclear experts “are looking for suitable places in the country to build a small-scale nuclear reactor together with Russian nuclear experts.”
“The feasibility studies will be conducted in several places across the country to build a nuclear reactor. We haven’t chosen a place yet,” he said. “We will do it in the best location with the most favorable and safest environment in order to minimize danger.”
Last September, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia to attend the Eastern Economic Forum and agreed with Russia on a road map for nuclear cooperation, including the possibility of implementing a small modular reactor project in Myanmar.
The statement by ROSATOM declared that the road map would guide cooperation in the field of “peaceful use of atomic energy” for 2022-23. In addition, experts from both countries would conduct studies about the possible construction of a light-water moderated nuclear reactor in Myanmar.
After 1999, the previous junta in Myanmar began negotiations with Russia on a nuclear reactor project, confirming their plans in January 2002 to build a nuclear research reactor for “peaceful purposes.”
Past nuclear pursuits
Myanmar, however, has been suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program in the past.
VOA sought comment from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), asking if the Myanmar junta’s plan for the nuclear reactor would be in accordance with the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. The IAEA has not yet responded.
Myanmar signed a key nuclear nonproliferation agreement, known as the Additional Protocol, with the IAEA in 2013. According to the agreement, the IAEA can expand its access to information and sites related to the country’s nuclear activities.
However, international analysts have concerns that Myanmar lacks the necessary regulatory and management systems to operate a nuclear power facility safely.
Map showing Myanmar
“In this type of reactor (a light-water moderated nuclear reactor), after some time, leaking can become a problem if proper maintenance is strictly required,” Myanmar scientist Khin Maung Maung, a professor of physics at the University of Southern Mississippi, said in a statement to VOA. “Here proper maintenance is the key idea. As far as I am aware, there is not a single factory in Myanmar that enjoys this privilege.”
“There is no doubt that they (the military leaders) have the ambition and desire to own nuclear arsenals,” he said, “and acquiring nuclear reactors, no matter how small, is definitely a step in that direction.”
ROSATOM previously said it would supply 10 metric tons of enriched uranium fuel to Myanmar, which, according to scientist Khin Maung Maung, is enough to build a nuclear weapon. Though the country doesn’t have the technical ability to convert the uranium to weapons-grade material, it could potentially use it in a “dirty bomb” scenario.
“With this much fuel in hand, they do not even need to enrich or build a proper weapon,” he said. “But one must be careful and think through all possibilities when dealing with [the] Burmese military.”
Russians visit Myanmar
Last December, a Russian delegation composed of around a dozen senior military officers — led by Colonel-General Kim Alexey Rostislavovich — visited Myanmar. According to the Myanmar state media, the two sides focused on cooperation regarding defense and counterterrorism between the two militaries, saying this would contribute to “regional and global peace.”
Russia, however, has threatened global peace by invading Ukraine, while Myanmar’s military has removed the democratic system in the Southeast Asian country by staging a coup and bloody crackdown on civilians.
According to the State Department, many credible reports show that Russia is providing the Myanmar military with weapons that “enable it to perpetuate violence, atrocities and human rights abuses against the people of Burma.”
“Russia’s backing for the regime is also undermining stability in the broader region,” the State Department said in a statement to VOA on Tuesday. “The United States will continue working with the international community to promote accountability for the coup and all those responsible for the horrific violence, including those who support and arm the military regime.”