Russia has agreed to supply Burma with its first nuclear reactor, in a move that is likely to dismay the United States and raise fresh fears about the spread of nuclear technology around the world. Agreement to refurbish Hungary's older reactors writes the Guardian.
Russia's atomic energy agency said it had reached a deal with Burma's military junta to build a nuclear research centre. The plant will have a light water reactor with a capacity of 10MW. It will use 20% enriched nuclear fuel, the agency said. Burma's science minister, U Thaung, signed a memorandum of understanding in Moscow on Tuesday with the agency's chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, officials said. A contract setting out where the plant would be built - and exactly how much it cost - would be agreed later, they added. The deal will irritate the Bush administration at a time when US-Russian relations are already in deep trouble over a range of issues ranging from missile defence to the future of Kosovo. It comes ahead of a difficult EU-Russia summit today and tomorrow in the Volga town of Samara. Burma has been under US and international sanctions since 1990, when the military junta refused to accept the election victory of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then Russia, along with China, has become a major backer and supplier of arms to the Burmese regime. The US is also unhappy about Russia helping Iran to build a $2 billion (£1 billion) nuclear facility at Bushehr. Washington suspects Iran of developing nuclear weapons. Yesterday Russia's federal atomic energy agency insisted that Burma had a right to peaceful nuclear technology - and said that there was "no way" it could use the reactor to develop nuclear missiles.
The agency's spokesman, Sergei Novikov, told the Guardian: "It's impossible to use it for anything other than civilian purposes. It can't be used for military nuclear programmes." Asked why Burma's government wanted a nuclear reactor, he replied: "I don't know." Novikov then suggested: "They want to make a first start in the peaceful use of nuclear technology." The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also rejected criticism. "No one is arguing about the right of every state to have peaceful nuclear energy," he said. "We can only welcome achievements in this sector of industry, which is very developed and very safe from the point of view of non-proliferation." Russian officials say the research centre - which will include laboratories and a facility for processing and burying nuclear waste - will produce only a small amount of electricity. Its main purpose will be to produce medical isotopes for use in cancer treatments. They conceded, however, that Burma would probably build a much larger nuclear reactor at some point. The atomic agency pointed out that the project in Burma, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would come under International Atomic Energy Agency control. Yesterday, however, an IAEA official said Burma had not "informed" it about the plan. Any reactor would be subject to safety inspections by the UN agency, the official said.
Construction of the reactor will be handled by the state-owned Atomstroiexport, which is controlled by Russia's atomic agency. "We are currently at the state of declaration of intentions," its spokeswoman, Irina Yesipova, told the Guardian yesterday. The deal is a long time in coming. The project was first floated in 2000 but apparently collapsed in 2003 because of Burma's inability to find the hard currency needed to pay for construction costs. Under the deal, about 350 Burma scientists would be invited to Russia to learn about nuclear technology, Novikov said. Analysts believe the country's military leadership has sought Russia's help in an attempt to balance its traditional and lop-sided dependence on China. Intriguingly, the move comes a month after Burma restored diplomatic relations with North Korea after a gap of 15 years.
Burma's capital, Rangoon, suffers from frequent power cuts as the country's economy struggles under the weight of decades of economic mismanagement. Some 240 miles north of Rangoon, the junta's newly built capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is basking in light, visitors report. The military has run Burma since 1962. It ignored Ms Suu Kyi's landslide 1990 election victory. She has been under house arrest ever since. As well as Burma, Russia is already building seven nuclear power plants in Iran, China, India and Bulgaria. It also agreed on Tuesday to refurbish four old nuclear reactors in Hungary, built in the early 1980s.
The Kremlin insists all countries have a right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. Moscow's most controversial project is the construction of Iran's first nuclear power station in the Gulf seaport of Bushehr. To Washington's delight, work on the project stopped earlier this year in a row over unpaid bills. The US accuses Iran of developing an illicit nuclear bomb programme - a charge Tehran denies. Russia's state-owned company Atomstroiexport, will build Burma's new nuclear reactor. Yesterday's Kommersant newspaper put the cost to Burma's military regime at $50-$70 million (£25-£35 million). (guardian.co.uk)