A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex
by Siegfried S. Hecker, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, November 20, 2010
On November 12, during my most recent visit to the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex with Stanford University colleagues John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, we were shown a 25 to 30 megawatt-electric (MWe) experimental light-water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction. It is North Korea’s first attempt at LWR technology and we were told it is proceeding with strictly indigenous resources and talent. The target date for operation was said to be 2012, which appears much too optimistic.
At the fuel fabrication site, we were taken to a new facility that contained a modern, small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges that was recently completed and said to be producing low enriched uranium (LEU) destined for fuel for the new reactor. Unlike all previously visited Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the uranium enrichment facility was ultra-modern and clean. We were also told that this facility was constructed and operated strictly with indigenous resources and talent.
These facilities appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capability. That can be accomplished much more expeditiously by restarting the dormant 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, constructing a new, larger gas-graphite reactor and conducting additional nuclear tests; but we saw no evidence of continued plutonium production at Yongbyon. Nevertheless, the uranium enrichment facilities could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel (or parallel facilities could exist elsewhere) and the LWR could be run in a mode to produce plutonium potentially suitable for bombs, but much less suitable than that from their current reactor.
This visit allowed us to answer some questions about Pyongyang’s nuclear directions; but it also raised many more. How the United States and its partners respond to these developments may help to shape whether Pyongyang will rely more on the bomb or begin a shift toward nuclear electricity, which it wants both for economic and symbolic reasons.
One of the most puzzling issues is how they got this far? Albright and Brannan recently presented a detailed analysis of the status of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. They demonstrate a clear pattern of cooperation and exchange with Pakistan, including crucial elements such as on-site training of North Korean technical specialists at the Khan Research Laboratory. They also show troubling procurement scheme, particularly with commercial entities in China. I have previously stated my concern about potential cooperation and exchanges in uranium technologies between North Korea and Iran.
I believe that although this peaceful program can be diverted to military ends, the current revelations do not fundamentally change the security calculus of the United States or its allies at this time. Pyongyang has gained significant political leverage already from the few plutonium bombs they have. Building more sophisticated bombs that can be mounted on a missile is better done with plutonium than HEU. However the production of large quantities of HEU and additional nuclear tests would allow them to increase the size of their arsenal. Even more troubling would be the potential of export of fissile materials or the means of producing them, which now include centrifuge technologies….
READ FULL REPORT: http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/23035/Yongbyonreport.pdf