Experts Urge Engagement with North Korea Over New Reactor’s Safety Risk

A three-dimensional model of North Korea's light-water reactor, based on satellite photographs taken in 2011. Experts are advising that the United States and other countries attempt to engage Pyongyang on the potential nuclear safety risks of the new reactor.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
May 6, 2014, 10:56 a.m.

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.

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