Jeffrey LewisBurma, Bombs and Boxes

ISIS has released a long-awaited trio of papers on Burma’s very odd nuclear programs.

Burma: A Nuclear Wanabee; Suspicious Links to North Korea; High-Tech Procurements (January 28, 2010)

A look at Burmese high tech illicit procurement efforts, the cooperation with North Korea in the areas procurement and development, and imagery analysis of several suspicious facilities.

Exploring Claims about Secret Nuclear Sites in Myanmar (January 28, 2010)

An analysis of several facilities described by Burmese dissidents as involved in a Burmese nuclear program. More ›

Deep Connections between Myanmar’s Department of Atomic Energy and the DTVE (January 28, 2010)

ISIS traces the links between Burma’s Department of Technical and Vocational Education and the Department of Atomic Energy

Some loyal readers have been writing me about Burma in the past few weeks; I implored them to hold off while ISIS completed what is a lot of grist for the crowdsourcing mill. Have at it.

I just want to make the same point from my Wilson Center talk — proliferation networks still exist, gas centrifuges are a very fundamental challenge to the nonproliferation regime, and there are countries we don’t know about yet that have clandestine centrifuge programs.

Burma may or may not be one of these countries. It may go the reactor route, or no route at all. But we are at the beginning, not the end, of a new wave of nuclear aspirants, enabled my much reduced barriers to entry to the nuclear club. The interesting policy question is whether we can devise solutions that preserve the nonproliferation regime in the face of rapid technological change.


  1. blowback (History)

    I am puzzled as to why there is this obsession with uranium enrichment and proliferation. As far as I can see there are two reasons that a country interested in developing nuclear weapons would go. down the uranium enrichment route. Firstly, if they wanted to develop a nuclear weapon without a full test, they would enrich uranium and the use a gun-type device which doesn’t work with plutonium. Secondly, if that country wanted to develop an enhanced device, they would need some enriched uranium (I believe but I might be wrong).

    However, the first is a dead end and the second only becomes relevant once a country has developed an implosion device.

    Otherwise, it would make more sense to go the plutonium route and while enrichment has its advantages, it is not essential. For instance, most of the UK’s plutonium came from Magnox reactors which use natural uranium.

    As the Iranians have discovered the difficulties in engineering gas centrifuges are substantial and require many skills that developing countries do not have.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    You are missing two things:

    First, the materials, tools and components are widely available in dual-use form and therefore difficult to control.

    Second, the facilities themselves are small and emit few, if any signatures.

    They are almost perfect for a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

  3. Azr@el (History)

    And thirdly the cost of transmuting things in the flux of ‘materia prima’ found in a reactor is 2-3 times higher than enriching U235.

    And fourthly, plutonium is a nasty material to work with; toxic, hot and cursed with seven crystal phases.

    Uranium has several viable preexisting vectors of enrichment and at least three interesting new vectors that are on slow development arcs due to the global glut of fissile material.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    It’s probably best not to make too much of this, but the two big buildings in Figures 2 and 3 of “Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe; Suspicious Links to North Korea; High-Tech Procurements and Enigmatic Facilities” are in locations not incompatible with the defector stories that came out last August. That is, the one in Fig. 2 is a little over 3 km from Naung Laing and the one in Fig. 3 is about 15 km from Myaing.

    “The defectors’ detailed and adamant testimonies, coupled with the radio transcripts, contradict this – they say Burma has no more than two reactors, one located at Myaing and the other at Naung Laing.”

  5. George William Herbert (History)

    I’m trying to get a handle on it now, but I think that IR imagery of these sites, at different times of day / night, would be telling.

    A centrifuge facility will have moderate but constant heat output.

    A manufacturing facility is typically 8-10 hrs a day active, not so active at night, unless there are multiple shifts.

    A nuclear reactor obviously has near continuous, high output thermal signature.

    I’m working on some Landsat image stuff now, but I haven’t got a background with it. If anyone’s more familiar with the open source IR imagery tools…

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    I would certainly like to understand why the two Big Odd Boxes near Naung Liang and Myaing (BOB1 and BOB2, respectively) are in similar topographical settings. I.e., they’re both in hilly country and are built at the foot of modest hills. A number of possible reasons come to mind, but none seems all that persuasive.

    Are there any civil or construction engineers in the house who might offer some professional comments on why such locations might have been chosen?

  7. yousaf (History)

    You say “Burma may or may not be one of these countries. It may go the reactor route, or no route at all. But we are at the beginning, not the end, of a new wave of nuclear aspirants, enabled my much reduced barriers to entry to the nuclear club. The interesting policy question is whether we can devise solutions that preserve the nonproliferation regime in the face of rapid technological change.”

    The challenge is not to devise solutions to preserve the non-proliferation regime, but to punish more aggressively those (mostly western) countries that continue to value nuclear arms and set an example for aspirants.

    Also, importantly, the very implementation of counter-proliferation efforts makes nuclear weapons more desirable. This has been outlined in John Mueller’s new book Atomic Obsession. A great read, even if he discounts the nuclear threat a bit much.

    In many respects, a softer approach to counter-proliferation than, e.g., the Iraq war triggered by WMD suspicions, is needed. e.g. It is not clear that military strikes, or even sanctions, against possible perceived proliferators is the smartest thing to do.

    As the intro to Mueller’s book states: Our fear levels remain as high as ever today, but are they justified? Eminent international relations scholar John Mueller thinks not, and this highly provocative work, he contends that our overriding concern about nuclear weapons borders on an obsession unsupported by either history or logic. Drawing on the history of the entire atomic era, Mueller argues that nuclear weapons have never represented much of a threat given states’ fundamental unwillingness to use them. After the focus shifted away from ‘mutual assured destruction’ to the terrorist threat following 9/11, alarmists had a new cause. Yet analysts have consistently overestimated the destructive capabilities of the devices we worry about the most now: suitcase nukes and dirty bombs. Moreover, our current worries about terrorists obtaining such weapons are essentially baseless. As Mueller points out, there is a multitude of reasons why terrorists will not be able to obtain weapons, much less build them themselves and successfully transport them to targets. Mueller goes even further, maintaining that our efforts to prevent the spread of WMDs have produced much more suffering and violence than would have been the case if we took a more realistic view of such weapons.

    i.e. Aggressive counter-proliferation may be worse than the proliferation it aims to counter.

    Some reviews:

    “John Mueller’s argument will almost certainly change your interpretation of some significant events of the past half-century, and likely of some expected in the next. It did with mine.”—Thomas C. Schelling, 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics and author of Arms and Influence

    “With clear-eyed logic and characteristic wit, John Mueller provides an antidote for the fear-mongering delusions that have shaped nuclear weapons policy for over fifty years. Atomic Obsession casts a skeptical eye on the nuclear mythology purveyed by hawks, doves, realists, and alarmists alike, and shows why nuclear weapons deserve a minor role in national security policymaking and virtually no role in our nightmares. It is the most reassuring book ever written about nuclear weapons, and one of the most enjoyable to read.”—Stephen M. Walt, author of Taming American Power

    “How much should we worry about nuclear terrorism? How far should we go to stop Iran (or North Korea) from acquiring nuclear weapons? In this fascinating and provocative book, John Mueller addresses such questions. Policymakers, scholars, students—indeed all Americans who are concerned about threats and the allocation of scarce resources—must read this volume, ponder its conclusions, and debate what now needs to be done.”—Melvyn P. Leffler, author of For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

    “Mueller’s achievement deserves admiration even by those inclined to resist his central thesis. The book is meticulously researched and punctuated with a dry wit that seems the perfect riposte to the pomposity of security experts who have so far tyrannized debate. Although by no means the last word on nuclear weapons, Mueller deserves praise for having the guts to shout that the atomic emperor has no clothes… the book should nevertheless be packaged up and sent to Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a simple message: ‘Please calm down.’” —Arms Control Today

    Indeed, “please calm down” and let’s start by reducing our (US and Russia’s) >90% share of nuclear weapons.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    > topographical settings

    A recommended way to see the topography of the two sites is to go to and then enter their coordinates:

    BOB1 : 22.0513 N, 96.6294 E

    BOB2 : 21.7238 N, 94.7665 E

    Once at a site, select the “Satellite” view and zoom in to be sure the scene is centered on the appropriate Box, then switch to the “Terrain” view to see a topographic map of the area. Zooming in and out on the topo map gives an idea of both the local and regional settings.

    To my eye, the location of BOB1 qualifies as, indeed, “odd.” BOB2, on the other hand, moves into “extraordinary” territory, and I have to think there was some specific and fairly compelling reason for building it where it is.

  9. John Schilling (History)

    I’m not seeing anything terribly extraordinary about BOB2’s location. It’s on the edge of a small rocky hill protruding from the Irrawaddy/Chindwin alluvial plain. That plain is home to a large fraction of Burma’s population and infrastructure, which makes it a good general location for an industrial facility. Alluvial plains are generally bad for sinking the foundations of large, heavy structures, hence picking one of the few rocky bits. Also, the rocky bits are the only ones that don’t already have lots of farmers living on them. What are you seeing that I’m missing?

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    There are a few obvious reasons for in the foothills –

    1. Rock for solid foundations, if you’re doing something where lack of solid foundations is a serious problem (for example, running centrifuges, or a very large super precision automated milling machine)

    2. If you’re trying ultimately to tunnel down under the hills, it’s one place you might put a ramp down into the rock. Hiding the ramp under a large 80 m square building would efficiently disguise it from remote sensors.

    There are other explanations but those seem the most likely.

    Others seem reasonably convinced it’s some variation on 1, involving machine tools, but I would like to see better data. The Israelis snuck cameras into the Syrian reactor…

  11. blowback (History)

    jeffrey and Azr@el = thanks for the answers.

  12. Allen Thomson (History)

    @John & George:

    I agree that a solid basis for a foundation for something that needs great dimensional (and vibration?) stability seems like a good reason to build it there. I’m asking a couple of civil engineering groups for opinions and will relay any replies.

    But note that the massif (I think that’s the geoword) BOB2’s on extends somewhat to the south and is more level there, making for easier construction. But they didn’t choose the easier site.

    Which connects to the topography, which I think is still a problem. Yes, BOB2’s next to a relatively small hill (several 10s of meters above the base of the building), but that hill is the highest point in a ridge that is higher than anything for a long way around and looks to be part of a solid ridge of rock. Which leaves me believing that the hill(s), as well as the rock they’re made of, were important in deciding to place BOB2 there.

  13. Allen Thomson (History)

    > The Israelis snuck cameras into the Syrian reactor…

    A very small point of detail, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t. The inside pix date from 2002-early 2003, maybe some from a bit later, so I think someone who had access to the project documentation showed up late 2006-early 2007 at a Mossad door with a bag full of goodies. Just who that someone might have been is a matter of interest.

  14. Josh (History)

    According to Der Spiegel, the Mossad lifted the photos from the laptop of a Syrian official visiting London in 2006.

  15. Allen Thomson (History)

    > the Mossad lifted the photos from the laptop

    Pesky laptops again! That would be functionally equivalent to a defector bringing in the same material. I’m not sure how much to believe that Spiegel article, although it certainly has stuff in it that would be highly significant if true. (E.g., the Gen. Asgari part.)

  16. Allen Thomson (History)

    Getting back to Burmanmar but not away from Syria, the new DNI annual threat assessment ( is silent on Myanmar but does mention the Nork/Syrian reactor a couple of times.

    I have the impression that the USG is pretty sure(*) about the Syrian story but really isn’t sure at all about what is and isn’t going on in Myanmar.

    (*) “Pretty sure” doesn’t, of course, mean “right.”