North Korean Atomic Reactor May be Unsafe, U.S. Expert Says

A prominent U.S. nuclear weapons expert said he has serious concerns about the safety of an atomic energy reactor being built in North Korea, Reuters reported on Thursday (see GSN, Jan. 24).

Siegfried Hecker in November 2010 was given a rare tour of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, where he witnessed the early stages of construction of a light-water reactor that would seemingly be powered by uranium enriched at a nearby facility.

Though he has yet to return to the isolated nation, Hecker analyzed recent satellite images of the reactor for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and concluded significant progress had been made since 2010 in erecting much of the exterior structures for the facility (see GSN, Jan. 10).

"What alarms me is that I have never had the sense they had the sufficient regulatory oversight in order to be able to build this thing safely, and operate it safely," said Hecker, the former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Now at Stanford University, Hecker told Reuters he believed the reactor could go online as soon as 2014.
"From a technical standpoint, they should not proceed with the completion of the reactor and operate it on the basis of lack of connection with the international safety community. That is just too high of a risk," he said.
South Korea and the United States insist the light-water reactor and the uranium enrichment plant are a violation of previous nuclear agreements struck with Pyongyang. They are demanding all uranium enrichment be stopped before the frozen North Korean denuclearization process is relaunched.
Though the reactor seems aimed at producing atomic energy, its close proximity to the enrichment plant underlines the possibility that the North could move to refine uranium to nuclear-warhead levels. The North's nuclear weapons program to date has relied on plutonium.
Seoul and Washington are confronted with the problem of either strong-arming Pyongyang into halting work on the reactor or acquiescing to its construction and offering technical assistance to reduce the chances of a nuclear malfunction at the site, Hecker said.
"The international and political community has another couple of years to come to a resolution," the expert said. One option might be to have Chinese specialists look for potential safety threats, Hecker added.
Hecker said his primary worry was that an earthquake could lead to electricity being shut off at Yongbyon, triggering a nuclear crisis akin to the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi energy plant in Japan. While the Korean Peninsula does not experience many major seismic events, small earthquakes are common. There are also worries about volcanoes in North Korea (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Jan. 26).
Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea and the United States next week are scheduled to convene trilateral "security consultations" on North Korea, South Korean officials told Voice of America.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said the three-way talks in Seoul would address "humanitarian" matters. Issue experts, however, think the talks will focus on planning for a variety of security outcomes in the North (Voice of America, Jan. 26).
Separately, the South Korean military on Thursday conducted its first exercise using live artillery shells since the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Agence France-Presse reported.
"Marines are staging drills today" on two border islands -- Yeonpyeong Island and Baengnyeong Island -- a defense official said.

The North responded to live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 by firing a barrage of shells that killed four people on the island and ramped up tensions between the two neighbors.

Defense officials characterized Thursday's drill as standard and did not provide further specifics (Agence France-Presse/London Daily Telegraph, Jan. 26).
January 26, 2012

A prominent U.S. nuclear weapons expert said he has serious concerns about the safety of an atomic energy reactor being built in North Korea, Reuters reported on Thursday.