UN nuclear watchdog wants to visit Myanmar-source

Thu Dec 15, 2011 3:58pm IST

* IAEA wants to visit Myanmar

* U.S. think tank says nuclear claims "poorly evidenced"

* Myanmar: no "economic strength" to build such arms

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The United Nations nuclear watchdog is seeking to gain access to sites in Myanmar, which rejected allegations by an exile group last year it was trying to develop atomic weapons, a diplomat familiar with the issue said.

Myanmar officials signalled during talks in September that inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could come to the southeast Asian nation, which has initiated radical reforms after decades of authoritarian military rule.

The meeting on the sidelines of the IAEA's member state conference raised hopes of progress on the issue, the diplomat added, without specifying which facilities the Vienna-based U.N. agency may want to see. There was no immediate IAEA comment.

A exile group based in Norway said in mid-2010 that Myanmar had a secret programme dedicated to developing the means to make nuclear weapons, following up on similar allegations by defectors from the then reclusive state.

The IAEA said at the time that it was looking into the report. Myanmar is a member of both the IAEA and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Myanmar's IAEA envoy, Tin Win, said in September the country did not have "enough economic strength" to develop atomic arms. It has also previously denied the accusations.

A U.S.-based think tank this week said allegations by the exile group and defector interviews claiming that Myanmar "had or has a nuclear weapons research programme remain unsubstantiated and poorly evidenced".

But, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said: "The international community must remain steadfast in its calls on (Myanmar) to fully commit to nuclear non-proliferation objectives and allow full verification of those commitments."

NORTH KOREA LINKS?

The IAEA is tasked with preventing the spread of atomic bombs in the world by seeking to make sure that any nuclear material is not diverted for military purposes.

Myanmar "should answer any questions the IAEA has about its nuclear activities and illicit procurement efforts relating to sensitive equipment potentially related to nuclear applications," ISIS said on its website.

It should also provide information about past transfers and cooperation with North Korea and explain why it continues to send students to Russia for training in nuclear and missile applications, the think tank added.

Last year, a U.N. report suggested that North Korea might have supplied impoverished Myanmar as well as Iran and Syria with banned atomic technology.

But most analysts believe Myanmar remains well short of any goal to acquire nuclear capability, and U.S. officials have played down fears its ties with North Korea had broadened to include a nuclear programme.

During a landmark visit two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Myanmar to end illicit contacts with North Korea, which has been trying to build a nuclear arsenal and which is under international sanctions.

Myanmar later denied it had been cooperating with North Korea on nuclear technology, the first time it has commented on speculation that the two states might be working together to build atomic weapons. (Editing by Rosalind Russell)