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Toward the Brink?

December 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: As we’ve been reporting over the past week, North Korea has dismantled U.N. monitoring equipment at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. It has also started moving fresh fuel into a reactor there. The reactor produces weapons-grade plutonium.

Both steps violate a 1994 agreement with the U.S., under which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and western help in building two light water reactors.

The North says it needs to restart the Yongbyon reactor to generate electricity because the West has suspended the fuel oil shipments. The shipments were halted after the North admitted in October that it’s been pursuing a separate uranium-based weapons program.

Here to help us sort through all this and for a primer on the controversial site are: David Albright, an outside analyst for the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in the 1990s. He’s now president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank that focuses on nonproliferation issues. And Leonard Spector, who worked on the North Korean issue at the Department of Energy after the ’94 agreement was struck. He’s now deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. Welcome to you both.

David Albright, beginning with you, give us a sense of the size of this complex.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yongbyon is very large. It has maybe five to 10 separate areas that are involved in various parts of the nuclear industry including making plutonium, separating plutonium, making fuel. It’s… thousands of people work there. It’s also constructed in such a way that buildings are isolated from each other by hills making it a very difficult military target.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s quite secret. They guard it.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: No. It’s very secret. Everything in North Korea is secret but this is particularly secret. It’s — very few people have ever gotten in there.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Help us get in there as much as we can, Leonard Spector. We have some satellite images we can put up of this complex. Start… what are the facilities of major concern that make up the chain to producing a nuclear weapon? Start with the first one.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, the first one of particular importance is the reactor itself. This is where fresh fuel comes in and gets irradiated and where plutonium is produced.

MARGARET WARNER: This is this five megawatt reactor, what, designed by the Soviets.

LEONARD SPECTOR: Designed by the Soviets but built by the North Koreans. It’s operated intermittently over the years, frozen since 1994 under the agreed framework.

MARGARET WARNER: And as I understand it in the time that it did operate, what, seven or so years, it produced enough plutonium for what — one or two nuclear weapons?

LEONARD SPECTOR: That’s correct. The U.S. Government estimate is that the weapons were actually constructed during the early 1990s.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, David Albright, now when we say that a reactor like this produces plutonium, what are we really talking about? What form? Is this the fuel rods?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s actually — you make the plutonium by taking or using the reactor to produce neutrons to make the plutonium in the uranium. And so the plutonium is a very small fraction of the fuel, and so you have to… and it’s also a lot of radioactive materials produced so it’s very hot, very dangerous to get near. And so you take it and put it in a spent fuel pond.

MARGARET WARNER: We have another image of that that we can show where that is. This is where… that’s the spent fuel storage building.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That’s right. It’s next to the reactor. There’s a tunnel connecting the reactor to the spent fuel pond and so the fuel has been stored there. And so North Korea is believed to have unloaded the reactor perhaps twice. I mean there’s some controversy over the first unloading. But certainly when it was unloaded in 1994, there was enough plutonium in that spent fuel to make about five nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Then when we say it was put in cooling ponds, literally water.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Just water.

MARGARET WARNER: What is it?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Water.

MARGARET WARNER: Just lying on the bottom.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Ten meters of water or so and they’re down in the bottom.

LEONARD SPECTOR: But they’re typically stored vertically. They have been cannisterized so the water doesn’t corrode them. This was done by the Department of Energy during the last five or six years.

MARGARET WARNER: Now then, take us to the third stage. If you wanted to take the plutonium and these rods and essentially convert it for use in weapons, what would you do and where on the map– and I think we’ll go back to the first image-would it happen?

LEONARD SPECTOR: You have to move the fuel rods, which are radioactive and dangerous, from the spent fuel pond across the site to another location — the reprocessing the facility I think it’s listed as a radio chemical laboratory.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right. That’s what the North Koreans call it. That’s really the reprocessing….

LEONARD SPECTOR: That’s correct. It has been shut down under the agreed framework. There is anxiety that it may be started up relatively soon. There have been reports that North Korea is on the market for the chemicals that are needed for the processing. How fast they might move if they got the spent fuel rods there is not really known.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But go back to the idea of reprocessing. What does that really mean?

LEONARD SPECTOR: That means the spent fuel rods are brought in. They’re dissolved in nitric acid and a set of chemical steps is taken to pull out the plutonium, unused uranium and radioactive waste products with the result that you have the purified plutonium then potentially available for use in nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So David Albright, when we say that all these sites– and I guess others at the complex– were sealed in ’94, what does that really mean?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, what it meant is they were shut down. And then the International Atomic Energy Agency installed cameras so it would be easier to observe that the facilities were shut down. They put in seals, which are essentially just wires with a special tag on it that’s… if you break it, the inspectors can know that it’s broken.

It’s not really a deterrent. There’s nothing intrinsic about it. I mean, the North Koreans can cover the cameras; they can cut the seals and restart. Inspectors remain at the site, however. There’s two inspectors, and so the most important part of the inspection process is the inspectors themselves. And so they’re still able to go to all these different sites and confirm that at least now the sites have not restarted.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now that we — hopefully we understand what’s at this complex — what is it, explain what it is that North Korea has done in the past ten days in these three places, if all three, that has caused such alarm.

LEONARD SPECTOR: All right. What they have done is taken all the seals and all the cameras out, made them unusable. So we no longer have that kind of capability for observing. We do have inspectors at the site. They have also now moved fresh fuel to the reactor site anticipating that it will be refueled and started up. They have said they will use it for electricity which nobody believes but that is the rationale. If the material goes into the reactor, it will have to cook for a spell maybe a year before enough plutonium would be available to be reprocessed and then available for weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But let’s go back to what they’ve moved in. As I’ve read they’ve moved in something like, the IAEA says a thousand fuel rods. What percentage is that of what is needed to really get that reactor up and running again?

LEONARD SPECTOR: I think it’s a fair percentage. I’ll defer to David.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s a little more than 10 percent, a little more than 10 percent of the core. Most people believe they have enough fuel to load the core.

MARGARET WARNER: Where do they get the fuel?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: There’s another complex at Yongbyon that deals with fuel fabrication.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s put that up if we’ve got it. I think it’s the second slide or the first slide.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s down at the bottom of the picture.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. That very bottom one. All they had to do was truck it or take it to the reactor.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It was in storage at different places. Some may have been produced and never turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency for inspection. They have quite a bit stockpiled. It’s a fairly large facility. It hasn’t restarted. I mean this would all be fuel produced prior to 1994.

MARGARET WARNER: But did you just say… forgive me but did you just say that they think or you think or U.S. intelligence believes or IAEA does — that they’ve got enough fuel rods on site to actually reload this reactor and get it going?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: To reload it. That’s right. They have enough. But the most urgent thing though in terms of international concern is what happens to the spent fuel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Has anything happened to the spent fuel?

LEONARD SPECTOR: So far not that we’re aware of. The cameras and seals are gone though so they are getting ready it would appear to take some action there. I think that’s what is making everyone especially nervous.

MARGARET WARNER: And if they were to do something with the spent fuel rods in that sort of site number two, they would what, just take it to the reprocessing plant?

LEONARD SPECTOR: They would do that and then they would start the reprocessing plant. Now, that doesn’t happen overnight. We obviously have a lot of preparations that have to be done at the reprocessing plant. It’s not quite clear how large it is in terms of its scale, how fast they can move the fuel through. And also it should be relatively visible because the… this has to be done above ground in trucks. So we will probably have some warning but once the process begins this is going to be a very, very dangerous period because certainly this will be a very significant red line for the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Can it be… does it take both satellite imagery and the I gather the three inspectors on the ground right now to really feel confident that we know what’s going on there or if North Korea were to kick out the inspectors, could it all still be observed?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the inspectors are the most important. I mean, because there you really know what’s going on. I mean, with satellite imagery you can tell if the site is started. I mean, the reactor has a cooling tower that emits steam when it’s operating, the reprocessing plant is going to emit kind of a brownish gas that can be seen. But it’s very hard to know precisely what’s going on. In fact, have they been separating plutonium or a large amount? Are they doing a little bit. I mean, it’s very hard to tell with commercial satellite imagery.

MARGARET WARNER: So you started to answer this before and I sort of cut you off. But let’s say there are several theories as to why the North Koreans are doing it. One is they just want to get U.S. attention and get this non-aggression pact they’ve been wanting all along. Another is of course their rationale is we need it for electricity. Now, the U.S. says that’s implausible. Is it implausible, if so, why?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, it’s implausible because I don’t believe this facility has ever produced electricity in its many years of operations.

Secondly we have had other periods of cut off of heavy fuel oil. Sometimes the Congress would not appropriate the money for a number of months. Sometimes there were just other delays that were just because of the way these shipments go.

So at this point simply because there’s been a delay of one month or a cut off to say they need to go back and start producing electricity, I think is not a very credible argument. So I think what they’re really up to is getting our attention and perhaps worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that it’s not plausible to say it’s for electricity?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It has a turbine, but it produces a very small amount of electricity. And then if they only wanted electricity even the small quantity why would they take the seals off a reprocessing plant? I agree. It’s just not credible.

MARGARET WARNER: Stages two and three there would be no reason to take seals off then because they could do it all with the reactor.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: If the reason instead is as Mr. Spector put it something worse, that is that they’re really bent on reviving this whole nuclear program, if they went all out, what time frame are we looking at between now and when they would be generating enough weapons grade material to produce additional nuclear weapons?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, they’ve maintained the reactor and the reprocessing plant. They actually did maintenance over the summer at the reprocessing plant so I think the estimates on restart of both facilities are about one to three months.

And sometimes they do things quicker. So I think by… within six months to a year, they could have separated out all the plutonium from the spent fuel as they did move forward, and perhaps even quicker than six months if they take special steps. Some of those are just ignoring what we would consider radiation safety standards and taking risks that we would never do. But what they may.

MARGARET WARNER: Like?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well the fuel that’s stored in the spent fuel pond is extremely dangerous to actually handle. It’s very old. It was never intended for long-term storage. If you take it out of the cask and it gets into air, some of it can actually spontaneous ignite and you have a fire and you could have quite a mess in the reprocessing plant.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to the time frame?

LEONARD SPECTOR: Well, I think the particular danger is that once you begin to see any movement of the spent fuel, diplomacy is not going to have very much time to operate.

Already I believe the administration is going to try to get the IAEA to step in, perhaps this will go to the Security Council. But once the reprocessing gets ready to roll, things are going to happen faster perhaps than diplomatic developments can catch up. And that might lead to a military confrontation.

MARGARET WARNER: So really that pond with the spent fuel rods, that is the red line that intelligence and the inspectors are really looking at.

LEONARD SPECTOR: I would think so.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, thank you both.