Thursday, November 18, 2010

Putting the Light in Light-Water Reactor

A minor issue arose last weekend that is busy pretending to need attention; the claim that North Korea is building a light-water reactor (LWR) at Yongbyon, as conveyed to the world by American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker on November 13th.

Well let's put the cart before the horse and issue the conclusion first: this is a ham-fisted pressure tactic from a bygone era when what North Korea said was taken seriously by people in the international community. Or at least that is what I hope. Either way, it should be ignored.

Now that is out of the way, the facts. There are a number of reasons to mark the LWR claim down as unimportant even if true and a number more by which to dismiss it outright.

For a start, it takes at least five years to build an LWR. Given that satellite imagery showed zero construction on the site as of October, 2009, that means we have until 2015 to "watch this space".

Second, it is unlikely, though admittedly not impossible, that North Korea knows how to build one. In an October assessment of North Korea's rumored Highly Enriched Uranium project, ISIS scientists David Albright and Paul Brennan wrote, "North Korea has not demonstrated any capability to build a light water reactor, which requires a range of technological capabilities that are lacking in the country."

Therefore, if they do now know how to build one, that would be because somebody told them. It doesn't bear stating what size that particular can of worms would be.

Third, Siegfried Hecker was not shown the construction, only told about it by North Korean officials. As a former director of Los Alamos Laboratory, he is presumably a man who knows what a light-water nuclear reactor looks like, and as an annual visitor to Yongbyon I doubt he could be readily hoodwinked by the North Koreans. It seems to me, then, that he has been employed here as a useful idiot, a conveyor of hearsay lent a wholly unwarranted veneer of believability by the man himself.

Thus, I think it reasonably clear that whatever construction is going on at Yongbyon (and make no mistake, there is construction going on) it is probably not a light-water reactor, or if it is then it will take a long, long time to complete.

The best part of all this is that the international community seems to be playing it the right way. A good example came in a U.S. State Department daily briefing on Monday, in which spokesperson Philip Crowley, evidently well briefed, consummately dodged the question and stayed right on message. The message; stop bluffing, and do what we want.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you think – do you have any comment on the report North Korea is building light-water nuclear reactor?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, North Korea has obligations. It has stated in the 2005 joint statement that it is committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We expect North Korea to live up to its international obligations. As it does, we are prepared to have conversations with North Korea about its long-term requirements. But first and foremost, North Korea has to live up to its stated commitments.

When even the U.S. government seems to appreciate that you are bluffing to try and get attention, then you know you have a problem.

UPDATE: The Hecker report is available here for you to make up your own mind.

UPDATE 2: According to Chosun Ilbo;

"If Pyongyang had really succeeded in making highly enriched uranium and producing nuclear weapons, it would have hidden it rather than making it public," the defector said Monday. He interpreted the unveiling as a ploy to get the North out of dire straits caused by a botched currency reform late last year and an exhausted treasury due to the expensive power transfer to leader Kim Jong-il's son. The North is getting desperate and trying to win concessions from the international community by ratcheting up the nuclear threat, he said.

It doesn't make me right, but it is nice to have friends.

Meanwhile, as an obvious point of order I should point out that Siegfried Hecker was in fact shown what North Korea says is the LWR under construction, and the associated uranium enrichment facility. This does not alter my conclusion, however.


  1. "A minor issue arose last weekend that is busy pretending to need attention".

    I love this sentence. You must blog more often.

  2. She's right! But also I would mention the North Koreans have done this whole fake construction for the good of western satellites to get aid thing before. Remember the big hole they dug into a mountain in the 1990s, I remember reading about it in Natsios's book a while back. Your analysis does fit past precident well...