US-KOREA INSTITUTE, JOHN HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
North Korean Nuclear Reactor Safety: The Threat No One is Talking About
BY: MATT KORDA
DECEMBER 14, 2017
The ability of North Korea to safely operate its nuclear reactors, according to many experts, is increasingly being called into question given the North’s isolation and lack of safety culture. Pyongyang’s ability to respond to a nuclear accident in a timely fashion will make the difference between a small-scale event and a catastrophic disaster. And while the actual contamination would be localized, the lack of transparency from North Korea in dealing with the situation is likely to cause political panic in the region in excess of the actual radiological exposure and environmental impact. The opening of nuclear safety talks with the North to help prevent such an accident from occurring would provide a rare opportunity for regional dialogue and could pry open the door for realistic and productive discussions of North Korea’s nuclear program.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen?
A video of Kim Jong Un smoking next to an untested liquid-fueled missile tells you everything you need to know about North Korea’s nuclear safety culture. The remarkable 14-second clip shows the Supreme Leader taking a puff while a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile is erected on the launch pad mere feet away—prompting a torrent of snarky Twitter commentary expressing regret that Kim’s lit cigarette had not “solved the problem for us.” Kim’s recklessness is certainly notable, and it hints at an underemphasized and potentially devastating possibility: the threat of a nuclear accident in North Korea.
At the March 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye claimed that Yongbyon, North Korea’s primary nuclear research center, “is home to such a dense concentration of nuclear facilities that a fire in a single building could lead to a disaster potentially worse than Chernobyl.” While her damage assessment is likely an exaggeration—researchers from 38 North assess Chernobyl’s power output to have been 3,000 percent greater than Yongbyon—the potential for a nuclear accident is not.
Niko Milonopoulos and Edward D. Blandford noted previously that a sudden fault in North Korea’s outdated power grid could prevent the Yongbyon reactors from being adequately cooled and could potentially trigger a meltdown. Such an event could also be prompted by a natural disaster or abnormal weather patterns. Complementary analysis by Nick Hansen indicates that North Korea’s 5 MWe plutonium production reactor had to be briefly shut down following a flood in July 2013 which destroyed parts of the cooling systems. He noted with concern that “if a major flood cuts off the cooling water supply to the reactors before they can be shut down, a major safety problem could occur.” This is exactly what prompted the series of nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima.
In 2010, a team of Stanford scientists led by Dr. Siegfried Hecker visited North Korea’s 25-30 MWe Experimental Light Water Reactor, which was still under construction at the time and will likely be operational soon. Their subsequent analysis expressed a lack of confidence in North Korea’s ability to operate the site safely upon completion, citing insufficient concrete quality, the lack of an independent nuclear regulator, and the inexperience and isolation of the design team as particular concerns….” end quote. read the rest at the link above.
There is no reason to be optimistic about the radiological state of North Korea. It is likely to be a dangerous mess around and in the nuclear test sites, and other nuclear sites, military or civilian.
The population of the country are slaves at all levels. Over the decades millions must have suffered and died prematurely from all manner of things, including nuclear hazards by now, I think, well embedded into the biosphere of the place. The ones worst off are those closest in and that has always been the case.
There is no data in the public domain which pertains to the radiological state of North Korea, and correcting that global ignorance must surely be a high priority. Given that the man with worst barber in the world says he wants peace. Open disclosure by the North Koreans to the rest of the world is the minimum we should accept.