Sean O’Connor, whose excellent IMINT and Analysis blog was recently on hiatus, sent along his thoughts on the Box o’ Burma, aka The BOB:
Recent revelations in Sydney Morning Herald and Yale Global Online (Part I and Part II) have begun to shed more light on the potential nuclear ambitions of Burma. While it is known that an IAEA monitored, Russian-built research reactor is being constructed near Myaing, reports from defectors have surfaced claiming that a second nuclear facility is being created. This second facility, reportedly near Pyin Oo Lwin, is allegedly being constructed with the aid of the DPRK, Russia, and possibly Iran. It is the cornerstone to the Burmese clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Burma’s nuclear program is allegedly composed of two facets: a nuclear plant and plutonium reprocessing center, and an artillery unit, which may eventually be equipped with ballistic missiles imported from North Korea. The entire complex is believed to be placed within the Setkhaya Mountains, southeast of Pyin Oo Lwin. Burmese scientists and soldiers have traveled to Russia for training in the operation of nuclear reactors, as part of the Burma-Russia program to develop a research reactor near Myaing, and reports suggest that some personnel have traveled to North Korea for similar reasons. North Korea appears to be the source for the bulk of the design and infrastructure development for the reactor and reprocessing plant. The reactor is believed to use water to provide the carbon dioxide used in the cooling loop. This is consistent with North Korean reactor design, and both the reactor at Yongbyon and the alleged reactor being built in Syria were sited near water sources for this reason.
Recent analysis of satellite imagery has brought a potential location for Burma’s nuclear program to light. The facility, roughly 10 miles east of Pyin Oo Lwin, can be seen in the image below. This facility was under construction in 2005 when the imagery was captured, which would make it a candidate for the covert nuclear program but not the civilian program supported by Russia, which had not yet seen any significant activity in 2009. Three key points are annotated in the image, the facility itself, the power transmission lines which can be traced to Anisakhan southwest of Pyin Oo Lwin.
A detailed view of the main complex itself is provided below. Many features of the complex can be discerned even though it is still clearly being constructed. Note the aforementioned power lines, and the fact that they terminate at a substation, likely providing electricity for the complex. The main facility appears to be situated in a shallow revetment carved out of the terrain, with a smaller complex overlooking it from above. There are signs that fencing is being placed around the revetted facility, and signs that further buildings and roads are being constructed. The main facility, measuring 82 by 84 feet, appears to have a slanted, inverted v shaped roof made of corrugated metal.
There are numerous aspects of this facility which suggest that, while it may have some part to play in Burma’s nuclear program, it is not the site of the covert nuclear plant or reprocessing center. Firstly, recall the cooling requirements for a North Korean reactor design. There is no indication of any nearby source of water, or any significant piping from such a source, to provide the necessary water needed to cool the reactor. It was reported by one of the defectors that North Koreans were present at the covert site to engage in significant tunneling projects, as the reactor and/or plutonium processing plant were allegedly to be placed below ground. No sign of any sort of tunneling is present, or at least was not present in 2005. Furthermore, the terrain where the building is placed, as seen in the image below, does not preclude a large degree of tunneling or UGF emplacement. While there is a degree of terrain variation, it is not of sufficient depth to allow for UGF construction without boring down into the Earth at an angle, and thereby producing a much more noticeable construction footprint. Also, the facility does not appear to be sunk into the terrain to a great degree, disqualifying its use as a portal for entering a buried UGF.
There are two interesting features which may indicate where the covert facility, if it exists, will be sited. First, the access road leading to the east into the terrain is a new construction, and it leads right past the second feature, a possible security checkpoint. This is the first major security-related feature present in the area, and suggests that whatever is being concealed is further to the east. In fact, it has been suggested by a Burmese security officer that the “Naung Laing” (an alternate name for Pyin Oo Lwin, as well as Maymyo) facility is merely a distraction meant to hide the location of the real facility. While this is not necessarily likely, lax security noted in the area as of late suggests that the officer was at least half correct: this is not a nuclear facility. The likely location for the covert site is further east, near the river. An area of interest (AOI) for future investigation has been marked on the following image:
This location has a number of advantages:
- Preexisting, convenient water source for cooling
- Deeper and more varied terrain for UGF construction
- Conditions more amenable to the formation and persistence of mist, a feature claimed by defectors to have been chosen so that work on and the presence of the facility (and potentially cooling emissions) could be hidden from the air
As demonstrated above, while the unidentified facility located in Burma may not be related to the nuclear program, it does represent an interesting enigma, and its presence may have provided enough information to locate the general position of the covert site. The most likely explanation for the U/I facility, apart from the previously mentioned decoy site, is a support function for the significant amount of tunnelling which must be undertaken in order to construct the UGFs required by the project. In time this may even represent the security and site support base for the facility. Further investigation and analysis is required, but it can be stated with a degree of certainty, given the evidence and information at hand, that no nuclear activity will be undertaken underneath the 82 by 84 foot roof.