A retired U.N. nuclear expert says Burma is mining uranium and acquiring components for a nuclear weapons program. But evidence documented in his report indicates the military regime is far from becoming a nuclear threat.
Nonetheless, Robert Kelley, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, believes Burma's intent is clear: to build a nuclear bomb. Kelley has spent months scouring photographs and documents provided by a former Burmese defense engineer who recently fled the country.
Kelley makes his case in a new report commissioned by the Burmese dissident group the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway. The most compelling evidence that Burma is developing a nuclear weapons program is photographs of bomb-reduction vessels, says co-researcher, Ali Fowle.
"The machines had been built in the factories seemed quite clearly to be for making chemical compounds of uranium. That vessel looks like it's made to turn enriched uranium grain salt into uranium metal, which there are other reasons you could do that, but it's likely to be for a nuclear program," she said.
The color photographs analyzed in the report show Burmese military officials and civilians posing beside a machine called the vacuum glove box, which is used in the production of uranium metal.
The two factories analyzed in the report appear to be solely run by Burmese engineers, according to Fowle, who says that Burma is in the very early stages of developing nuclear technology.
"Some of the machines they've been making or some of the products they've been making are very crude, probably because they haven't been having outside help. There's one item that's a burning chamber that has two pipes coming out of it," she said. "Bob [Robert Kelley] remarked to me that his plumber could have done a better job than that. I mean it is very crude welding."
At the center of the investigation is Sai Thein Win, a former defense engineer and missile expert who worked in factories in Burma. Fowle said the Russian-trained defector felt morally compelled to share his knowledge with the world.
In his analysis of Sai Thein Win's evidence, Kelley acknowledged that a report based on one source is not ideal, and that it is possible to fake photographs. But he testifies to the credibility of the defector's background and says it is appears the photographs are real because of their volume and quality.
Hours before the report was released, U.S. senator Jim Webb canceled a planned trip to Burma. This week in Bangkok, Webb cited the report's findings and U.S. concerns about an alleged shipment of North Korean arms to Burma.
"I do not know the validity of this information, but at the same time I think there's enough in these two allegations of Burmese involvement with North Korea and potentially with a nuclear program," said Webb. "There's enough that needs to be resolved that it would be inappropriate for me to be going into Burma at this time."
Webb chairs a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, and has been key in the Obama administration's new effort to open a dialogue with Burma's military government.
A United Nations report asserted last month that North Korea has been secretly exporting missile and nuclear technology to Burma.
"None of our evidence implies that North Korea has anything to do directly with evidence that we think points to a nuclear program," said Fowle, dismissing assumptions that North Korea is backing Burma's nuclear activities.
Meanwhile, Robert Kelley is urging the international community to conduct a full investigation into the report.