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Myanmar Vows to Upgrade IAEA Safeguards

Daryl G. Kimball

Myanmar will take steps to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) greater access to the country’s nuclear facilities, the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein said in a statement Nov. 19, the day of President Barack Obama’s arrival in the Southeast Asian country.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, will sign an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and will “give effect to the modified standardized text of the Small Quantities Protocol,” the statement said. The move could put to rest lingering suspicions that Myanmar’s military junta had pursued a nuclear weapons program with assistance from North Korea and could open the door to further rapprochement with the international community.

An additional protocol expands the IAEA’s ability to check for clandestine nuclear facilities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or undeclared, to investigate questions about or inconsistencies in a state’s nuclear declarations. It also requires states to provide an “expanded declaration.” The IAEA Board of Governors still must approve Myanmar’s additional protocol.

Myanmar has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA, but it also has adopted a small quantities protocol, which holds in abeyance much of the agency’s inspection authority as long as a state’s nuclear material holdings do not exceed certain thresholds. (See ACT, July 2010.) In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors approved modifications to such protocols to correct what the board believed was “a weakness of the safeguards system.” Myanmar now has pledged to recognize the modified version.

The announcement on the two protocols comes after democratic reforms in Myanmar and significant pressure from Washington to address a range of human rights and governance issues. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in December 2011 that improved U.S. relations with Myanmar would be possible only “if the entire government respects the international consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons.”

A State Department report released in August says U.S. concerns expressed in last year’s report regarding Myanmar’s “interest in pursuing a nuclear program, including the possibility of cooperation with North Korea, were partially allayed.” (See ACT, October 2012.)

The Myanmar announcement on the additional protocol follows the Oct. 23 approval by the government of Iraq of an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. That country’s secret pursuit of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s was the principal impetus for creating the Model Additional Protocol in 1997.

As of Oct. 24, 139 countries had signed an additional protocol, and 119 had brought it into force, according to an IAEA tally.