A new expert report recommends that Washington and other governments attempt to engage North Korea on the possible safety risks of its new reactor.
North Korea is believed to be close to finishing construction of an experimental light-water reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. In May 2013, the expert website 38 North concluded that Pyongyang could begin the nine- to 12-month process for starting up the reactor just as soon as it had produced enough nuclear fuel to operate the plant. Very little is definitively known about the reactor's design or specific capabilities, as Pyongyang has not permitted international inspections of the site.
Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability experts David von Hippel and Peter Hayes in a Tuesday analysis said that while there was some danger of a nuclear accident occurring at the facility that could cause a radiological-emissions release, "due to the technical characteristics of the reactor, they would likely be modest in scale and scope."
But were a deliberate attack mounted on the reactor, its fuel pool and other associated facilities, the radiological fallout "could be more substantial, in terms of health impacts and damages to property," they said.
A separate analysis released last month by 38 North found that there was a "high" likelihood of a nuclear accident taking place at the experimental reactor, due to a number of potential factors. Those include possibly poor construction work or flawed reactor-safety designs.
Hayes and Von Hippel in their Tuesday report did not rule out the possibility of an accident occurring. But they concluded that were one to happen, it would likely be relatively small scale.
"The only way we can envision a large-scale release of radiation ... is [a] deliberate, malevolent attack" on the reactor, the report said.
When Pyongyang first revealed its plans for the reactor in 2010, it said the facility would be used to produce atomic energy for nonmilitary purposes. It is now uncertain whether the light-water reactor would have a solely civil role, but North Korea has not addressed that question specifically.
Because of North Korea's nuclear-weapons work, numerous international efforts have been made to completely shut out Pyongyang from the global atomic industry. As a result, little is known about what, if any, steps the country has taken to guard against a nuclear accident or terrorist attack at its Yongbyon facilities.
Von Hippel and Hayes wrote it would be prudent and "timely" for countries such as the United States, China and South Korea to reach out to Pyongyang about nuclear-safety issues. The analysts argued this engagement should take place regardless of where things stand with the impasse over North Korea's nuclear-weapons development.
"One of the things that surprised me is how little we really know about exactly what the North Koreans are doing in a number of technical respects," Von Hippel, a senior associate with the Nautilus Institute, said in an email. "Much of what we assume about the reactor is based on conjecture and a general understanding of both reactors, in general, and [North Korea's] level of technology, in particular."
He and Hayes said there are precedents for the United States engaging countries not party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on reactor safety risks, such as with Pakistan and India. They suggested that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could be used as the U.S. point of contact.
The two experts based their analysis on commercial satellite images and interviews with some U.S. nuclear weapon experts, who in 2010 were allowed a rare visit to Yongbyon.
Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute, in a separate email to Global Security Newswire, said engaging North Korea on nuclear safety "offers a relatively apolitical way to start a conversation with [North Korea] on nuclear matters, should we want to have one."
In the event that frozen negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program are ever resumed, "there is no doubt at all" that Pyongyang's desire for light-water reactors will be on its agenda, he said.
"Some form of assistance with regard to this existing project will be on the table," Hayes said. "We should be prepared for that discussion to commence at any time."
Correction: This story has been modified to accurately describe the stated purpose of the light-water reactor.