Another Nuclear Thug

19 May

. Just a reactor, just for electricity, mind you.

To anyone who has strolled the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, and spotted the grim-looking government building devoted to atomic energy, this seems a most unlikely turn of events. But on Tuesday May 15th Russia announced that it would help the south-east Asian country’s ruling junta to set up a nuclear research reactor. Myanmar—once called Burma—had reportedly tried to strike a similar deal with Russia before, but the plan stalled over payment. Now Myanmar, flush with an annual trade surplus (the country is well endowed with natural resources, like oil), says it will pay cash, and Russia has accepted.

On the cards is only a small-scale research programme, which Myanmar says will be used to generate power, presumably to keep the flickering lights on in Yangon. The plan is to build a 10 megawatt nuclear reactor that uses low enriched uranium. The centre would, reportedly, be under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog. This is a long step from getting the means or the knowledge for building a bomb, but it is enough to spread jitters.

Myanmar is an international pariah presided over by Than Shwe. Authoritarian since 1962, it has kept Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, under house arrest, on and off, since 1989. Elections won by her party in 1990 were annulled. Repeated attempts to censure Myanmar at the UN, for its grim human-rights record and its crackdown on democracy, have been stopped only by the intervention of Russia and China.

Now Myanmar may count on a new friend, after a rapprochement with another small, repressive and peculiar Asian country, North Korea. Diplomatic relations between the two were cut when North Korean agents murdered a number of South Koreans with a bomb in Myanmar in 1983. But late in April the two finally restored ties; Mynamar is also thought to buy weapons from North Korea.

On one hand, it’s an advantage for a poor country to generate power cheaply, and not use fossil fuels. However, keeping dictators from making bombs, and staying in power with those nukes, could become a full-time job for the US, one it cannot accomplish. And, lest we criticize Russia too harshly, The Economist also reminds readers that the US decision "…to provide the technology, in the 1950s, for a nuclear reactor in Kinshasa, in Congo, (in gratitude for uranium supplied by Congo to America for use in the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945), proved to be less than sensible. Nuclear-fuel rods were stolen in the 1970s and then traded by Italian smugglers, raising fears that terrorists could get their hands on such material."

It seems no one is completely trustworthy with nukes. Fortunately, the doomsday devices have never been used in anger, and that says much more about the supposed rationality of humans.

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