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Nuclear Appraisal

January 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For two years, the Bush administration and North Korea have been engaged in a bitter standoff over that country’s nuclear program. Early last year, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and said it was reprocessing spent plutonium fuel rods into weapons-grade material. U.S. officials say the North Koreans have also privately admitted they had a secret separate uranium weapons program underway. The North Koreans now deny saying any such thing.

Meanwhile, a six-nation negotiation process, following a model demanded by the U.S., has stalled. Earlier this month, at North Korea’s invitation, an unofficial U.S. delegation visited that country’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

Two delegation members join us now. Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who remains a senior fellow there, and Jack Pritchard, who handled North Korea issues on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Bush administrations; he’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you, both.

Mr. Hecker, you are the nuclear expert here, what did you see there in North Korea that told you how far along they are in developing a nuclear weapon?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: I think the most important part of what we saw is the principal issue was they had 8,000 fuel rods, which contained a significant amount of plutonium, enough for several weapons. Those fuel rods were stored with international inspectors essentially watching them safely and securely in a verifiable manner, actually in a pool of a storage building.

The question was: Were those fuel rods still there? The North Koreans said they were not, that they had reprocessed them to extract the plutonium. So the most important thing we saw immediately was they took us to this spent fuel storage pool building and after a significant amount of examination, we came to the conclusion that the spent fuel rods are no longer in that pool.

MARGARET WARNER: So then, go to the next step: did you see convincing evidence that they had reprocessed that plutonium, those fuel rods that came out of a nuclear reactor, into actually weapons grade material?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: That’s a little more difficult to answer definitively. What they did to try to convince us of that — they took us through the reprocessing facility. They call it the radio chemical laboratory. And what they showed us were the facility equipment. They answered all of our technical questions. They certainly had the capacity, capability and technical expertise to reprocess but they said they finished the reprocessing at the end of June 2003. And so when they said to me, well, look, we obviously reprocessed, I said, well, I’m not convinced. At that point, they said, would you like to see the product?

MARGARET WARNER: And?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: And I said, well, yes, we would like to see the product — the product being plutonium of some form, and the most important part of that was are they able to reprocess the plutonium and make plutonium metal? So they brought in a box that contained a couple of glass jars, sort of jelly jars to speak, and in those jars they had some plutonium powder. It’s called oxalate. It’s a powder that goes into the process along to making plutonium metal. The other jar contained plutonium metal, they said.

MARGARET WARNER: And, I mean, could you determine that it really was?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: I have seen much plutonium metal in my time, and what I can tell you, was that everything we saw and the things I was able to do without instrumentation was consistent with that being plutonium, however, I had to tell my host that without additional more sophisticated measurements I’m not able to say 100 percent certain that this is actually plutonium metal.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go to the next step, Mr. Pritchard, why did the North Koreans do this? They invited you all to come. What did they tell you?

JACK PRITCHARD: Well, I think it has to do with their sense of what deterrence means. They told the United States; they told me when I was in the government in advance every step along the way in a transparent manner, this is what we’re going to do — to the point of saying, we have now decided we have to reprocess and develop the plutonium for a nuclear deterrent and the response they believe they got from the United States was, well, we really don’t believe you.

So to have a nuclear deterrent you’ve got to have somebody believe that you have it. So I think that they are very concerned that some third party come in and from their point of view verify the deterrence element here. But we go back to what Dr. Hecker is saying and we saw specific things and not a deterrence.

MARGARET WARNER: And this is — from their perspective — from the point of view of wanting to at least force the U.S. into direct talks and also to deter the U.S., they think, from ever attacking them? Is that what you mean by nuclear deterrent?

JACK PRITCHARD: Well, that’s what they mean. They watched the development of the situation in Iraq. They have said for some time, they were concerned about the U.S. preemptive strike policy. They didn’t want to be next. There is some concern that they had. So they needed to come out and say you really can’t attack us. We have this deterrent capability.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So Mr. Hecker, let’s say this metal you saw really was plutonium. Did they show you in addition that showed they had taken it to the next stage which was making it into something that we might call a weapon?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: Indeed. That’s where they use the fuzzy concept of deterrence and they said look, you can understand we have a deterrent. I said wait a minute, that’s much more complicated than that.

I view at least having to have three pieces for a deterrent. The first one is you have got to make the metal. That’s not simple, and I think they demonstrated the capability although there’s still this question of whether what they showed me was actually metal. The second piece — you got to take that metal to a nuclear device much you’d have to take steel to a final automobile that you can drive out. And then the third piece — you have to take the nuclear device and put it on something, a delivery system. I told them very specifically that I never saw anything or never talked to anyone that would convince me that they actually have taken the next step.

MARGARET WARNER: Made it into a device..

SIEGFRIED HECKER: So we saw nothing that we could say yes, convinced us they made it into a nuclear device.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you ask to see one?

JACK PRITCHARD: In fact they said, are you suggesting you would like to see one? And, of course Dr. Hecker said, yes, we would. And then they then said we have run out of the time. We couldn’t arrange that. We certainly didn’t expect them to show us a device.

SIEGFRIED HECKER: And I had actually told them when I made this comment that you really haven’t shown me the deterrent. They said would you like to see our arsenal and I said well, yes but when they said that would be difficult, I said I would be happy to talk to the people who know how to design a nuclear device or have the capabilities for that next step. But in all fairness, that was the last day and they there went enough time to get the authority to be able talk to the right people.

MARGARET WARNER: But why Mr. Pritchard, if the whole purpose of exercise, I’m now asking to you put on your political hat, you have dealt with these people, if they wanted to essentially scare the U.S. into realizing they have this, why wouldn’t they show the next stage?

JACK PRITCHARD: Well, I think that’s part of what they are going to hold back for some eventual negotiation. They really were looking for within their controlled element what they could show, what they could see.

I’m sure they had their own discussions internally as to how far they wanted to go. They probably believed this was far enough. The discussion up to now was a disbelief by the U.S. that they had reprocessed the spent fuel rods.

MARGARET WARNER: Final quick question to you Mr. Hecker, just the material they did show you, if it is for real, you know, weapons grade, if they didn’t — could they — is that enough for a dirty bomb, a so-called dirty bomb a suitcase bomb or do they have to go to the next stage before it could be dangerous in that form?

SIEGFRIED HECKER: Well, first of all, what they showed me was 200 grams they claimed of plutonium. It doesn’t take much to make 200 grams. It was inside this jelly jar and I actually held it to see whether I could tell if it was warm enough and heavy enough to be plutonium. Now, they could use that 200 grams and pack some explosive around it and disperse the plutonium and make a dirty bomb. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t make a terribly good dirty bomb because plutonium itself is not that dangerous. It would obviously cause disruption but there are many other more dangerous radioactive elements.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much.