LWRs 2



In the last post, we looked at the early history of the LWR saga through the dissolution of KEDO.  The fact that KEDO had wound down did not preclude North Korean efforts to revive the project, however. To the contrary, the Agreed Framework provided the precedent to raise it again and the issue resurfaced in spades as the talks resumed in the fall of 2005. Yoichi Funabashi provides the definitive blow-by-blow account of these negotiations in The Peninsula Question, a terrific piece of journalism.

The Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 is worth quoting in full on this:

  • “The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision of light water reactor to the DPRK.”

The vague “appropriate time” looked like a fudge which could be pushed out into the indefinite future. But in his book Failed Diplomacy, Jack Pritchard notes the risk even this formulation posed. He rewrites history by recrafting this passage as it should have been written:

  • “The United States recognizes the right of the DPRK to have peaceful nuclear energy programs, but the United States has no obligation or intention of providing or supporting provision of LWRs to the DPRK. When the DPRK has denuclearized to international satisfaction and rejoined the NPT in good standing, the United States will not interfere in North Korea’s attempt to arrange financing through international financial institutions to build its own LWR—as long as the DPRK remains in good standing with the NPT.” (p. 126)

We would only offer one friendly amendment. “International financial institutions” is a dangerous term, since the North Koreans may think that this puts the World Bank or Asian Development Bank on the hook. Better to simply say “arrange financing to build its own LWRs.” As far-fetched as it may sound at this point in time, there is no reason why a reformed North Korea could not secure international financial support for such a mega-project; it happens all the time.

Sig Hecker’s report on his November 2010 trip to Yongbyon is  the last piece in this saga. It outlines what he was able to learn in November 2010 about the new LWR now under construction. Hecker estimates this indigenous effort to be in the 25-30 MWe range, a pilot plant that is a far cry from the two 1000 MWe reactors to be supplied under the Agreed Framework. But the most important passage of the report for political purposes has to do with the potential for diversion and the link to HEU:

  • “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.”

In short, standard international LWR designs are considered nearly diversion-proof if under safeguards. It would be virtually impossible in a safeguarded LWR to discharge spent fuel, extract plutonium and divert it to the military without being detected. But  this indigenous effort is of course not safeguarded. In any case, the LW project it is coupled with the HEU effort that could enrich to  weapons grade if the North Koreans chose to do so. The major concern arising out of the Hecker report is not simply the cascades at Yongbyon but the question of upstream facilities that supplied it. Where did this effort come from so quickly? Several weeks ago, a Korean National Assembly member asserted that NK has a clandestine uranium enrichment facility in the area of Tongch’ang-ri (near the new space launch facility). Although unconfirmed, it is almost certain that there are other facilities involved in the HEU effort.

In August of this year, we reported on the first round of bilateral feelers between North Korea and the US, drawing on useful information from a piece written by Chung-in Moon. LWRs were on the table right from the get-go.

All of this is ultimately tied to the complex of issue of how to address North Korea’s chronic power problems. Jae-Young Joon has an incredibly useful overview of the issues at the Nautilus website, where Peter Hayes and his team follow the energy issues as closely as anyone. (Tucked in his report is the interesting revelation that North Korean authorities have been communicating about their power needs with his institution, the Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute (KERI).

The bottom line: it is even worse than you think. Electricity shortages are a major cause of the country’s ongoing economic problems, with a “decrepit” infrastructure and grid generating output at plants that is as little as 27 to 47 percent of installed capacity. Not only is existing installed capacity aging and of Soviet design, but the factories for supplying updated capital equipment for the system are not operating either. The North Korean authorities are right in worrying about energy, but LWRs are hardly a silver bullet. What is needed is more attention to investment in basic infrastructure by the regime.

Finally, Joon walks through all of the inter-connection options—North-South, multilateral with the Russians—but they all seem like long-term prospects and all face major technical hurdles.  He reminds us that in 2005, the Roh Moo Hyun government proposed that South Korea could provide 2 GW of electric power to North Korea if the DPRK discarded its plans to develop nuclear weapons. The project had not really been analyzed carefully; AC or DC transmission lines from the South would have raised complex issues of interconnection and even disrupted the South Korean grid. The South is seeking a third round of bilateral talks with the North on nuclear issues, but we doubt that the LMB government is bringing sweeteners of this magnitude. NightWatch comments on a GNP proposal to provide a natural gas powerplant, either as a sweetener to the pipeline deal or to the larger 6PT process; another motive could be deflect attention from LWRs altogether.

A major point to emerge from this overview is that political gestures to “improve trust” can prove incredibly costly and establish unfortunate precedents. Aid to assist a reforming North Korea with its energy sector in the context of revived talks and progress on denuclearization is fine. White elephants are white elephants.

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