North Korea has built a uranium enrichment facility and is in the process of building a small experimental light-water reactor (LWR), a US academic and expert on the region has confirmed following a visit to the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex.
Siegfried Hecker, of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, visited the North Korean site with colleagues John Lewis and Robert Carlin on 20 November. Hecker's report suggests that his North Korean hosts were reluctant to let their visitors linger during their site tour but from much questioning he was able to glean some detail about the small industrial-scale enrichment facility. The plant, which apparently was constructed between April 2009 and November 2010, has a capacity of 8000 kg SWU per year, with an average enrichment level of 3.5%. The facility, known as the Uranium Enrichment Workshop, contains 2000 centrifuges in six cascades, which Hecker's hosts claimed were manufactured domestically but based on centrifuges in operation in commercial plants at Almelo in the Netherlands and Rokkasho-mura in Japan.
The delegation was also shown the construction site for the experimental LWR, which Hecker estimates would have a capacity of 25-30 MWe. Foundations were in place and work had begun on the reactor containment vessel, although the proposed completion date of July 2012 would appear to be wildly optimistic.
The enrichment plant appeared to come as something as a surprise to the visitors. Despite suspicions that North Korea had been pursuing enrichment technology since the 1990s if not before, the plant "significantly exceeds my estimates and that of most other analysts," Hecker noted. The control room for the plant was "astonishingly modern", and would not look out of place in any modern American processing facility. Although unable to independently verify North Korean claims that the plant is in operation, such claims were "not inconsistent with what we saw", Hecker said. The capacity of the plant was consistent with the size of the LWR under construction.
North Korea operated a small gas-cooled, graphite-moderated, natural-uranium fuelled reactor at Yongbyon during the 1980s and also started work on two larger versions at other sites. The Yongbyon reactor, which produced only about 5 MWe, exhibited all the features of a plutonium production reactor for weapons, and North Korea also built a reprocessing plant for the extraction of plutonium from used reactor fuel. The country agreed to freeze its plutonium-producing nuclear program in 1994 in return for energy assistance including the construction of two 1000 MWe LWRs, but the project ultimately failed following a lack of cooperation from North Korea, and the emergence of suggestions of a clandestine uranium enrichment program for weapons use in around 2002.
In April 2003, North Korea became the first country to withdraw from the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and carried out its first underground nuclear weapons test in 2006. It carried out a second test in May 2009 despite earlier agreements in six-party talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the USA to shut down the reactor and reprocessing plant and open them to international monitoring.
North Korea claims that the new facilities are part of a civil power program. While Hecker agrees that the facilities do indeed appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power and not military use, he warns that the enrichment facilities could be readily converted to produce weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU). While less suitable for plutonium production than the currently shut-down reactor, the LWR could also be used to produce plutonium potentially suitable for use in weapons.
Hecker's analysis of the situation finds that many questions remain but counsels against a knee-jerk reaction. "It is possible that Pyongyang's latest moves are directed primarily at eventually generating much-needed electricity. Yet, the military potential of uranium enrichment technology is serious ... The United States and its partners should respond to the latest nuclear developments so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb," he said.
US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth described the unveiling of the Yongbyon enrichment plant as a provocative move by North Korea, but not a crisis. The ambassador said the latest announcement was a serious matter. "We cannot just ignore it. And we have to incorporate this now into our strategy as we move forward," he said in comments published by the US State Department on 22 November.
The revelation of the newest Yongbyon facilities came days before artillery clashes between North and South Korean over their disputed western maritime border, and commentators are suggesting that the two incidents could be provocative acts intended to strengthen the position of Kim Jong-un, named recently as the designated successor of North Korea's current leader Kim Jong-il who is reported to be in poor health.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News