Troubling birth of a nuclear plant

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — When U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker was taken to a new uranium- enrichment facility in North Korea’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon last month, he was stunned by what he saw.

From an “astonishingly modern” control room at the plant, he looked down on neatly ordered arrays of 2,000 gas centrifuges. These high-speed spinning machines, each nearly two meters high and 20 centimeters in diameter, can be used to produce uranium fuel for nuclear power plants that generate electricity. They can also be adjusted to make the fissile cores of the most powerful thermonuclear weapons.

North Korean technicians showing Hecker and two colleagues the industrial-scale enrichment cascades housed in a building about 100 meters long insisted that the facility was configured to make low-enriched fuel for a small nuclear power reactor being built nearby.

North Korea has been isolated and placed under United Nations Security Council sanctions in recent years, particularly since it tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006 and again in May last year. These bombs drew their explosive power from plutonium reprocessed from spent fuel from a different and apparently still-frozen nuclear program.

With an estimated plutonium stockpile of 24 to 42 kg, North Korea had enough material to make between four and eight early-generation nuclear weapons. Its simultaneous testing of medium and long-range ballistic missiles increased concerns that it was racing to fit a few of them with atomic warheads that could strike South Korea, Japan or even the United States.

Hecker, a Stanford University professor, is a former director of one of the leading U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories. He has made seven visits to North Korea since early 2004. On all six of his previous visits, his hosts denied the existence of any uranium-enrichment activities, despite U.S. government assertions to the contrary.

The new plant at Yongbyon seen by Hecker did not exist in April 2009, when the last international inspectors were evicted from North Korea. Although North Korean officials said the plant had just started enriching uranium, Hecker was unable to confirm this. However, in an eight-page account of his Nov. 12 visit posted on the Stanford website, he asked how North Korea acquired centrifuge technology at such a level of sophistication and when? And did it have additional uranium centrifuge facilities that could easily be dedicated to making highly enriched uranium bomb fuel?

Such questions are troubling. They suggest two possibilities: (1) International sanctions and export controls designed to prevent rogue nations from acquiring nuclear weapons or the capability to make them have failed dismally; and (2) by persevering over many years North Korea has managed to build an advanced nuclear development system despite an impoverished economy and other obstacles.

It took Iran, which is widely suspected of having nuclear weapons ambitions, about 20 years to procure, build and operate enrichment cascades of the size seen recently in Yongbyon. Iran has roughly 8,000 centrifuges installed at its Natanz facility, according to U.N. inspectors. But it has reportedly had difficulty running them and about half are an early type.

The chief process engineer at the Yongbyon facility indicated that his centrifuges were more efficient and modeled on those found in European and Japanese enrichment plants, although he claimed that all components were manufactured in North Korea.

The U.S. and Japanese governments have tracked North Korean activities for years and say the regime in Pyongyang runs a clandestine international network of front companies and banks that exports arms and other items worth more than $1 billion annually to pay for imports needed in nuclear and missile development. Many of the imported items have a dual use, meaning that they can be used for legitimate civilian purposes but also for military programs. This complicates export controls.

Alerted by foreign intelligence agencies, Thailand last year seized a cargo plane that had landed from North Korea to refuel on its way to Iran. It was carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons worth as much as $18 million, including anti-tank rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles.

Earlier this month, the U.S. sanctioned two North Korean firms, a bank and a trading company, for being owned and controlled by Office 39 of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The U.S. says the office is a secretive branch of the North Korean government that provides crucial support to the regime by running illicit money-making activities. These include importing and exporting conventional arms, money laundering, counterfeiting goods and currency, bulk cash smuggling and narcotics trafficking.

North Korea has evidently collaborated with both Pakistan and Iran in nuclear and missile development. In a recent report, David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said he had learned that the North Korean procurement network obtained the modern computerized control equipment in the enrichment plant seen by Hecker from abroad. Albright said the equipment, also used in the petrochemical industry, was the same as the equipment acquired by Iran to run its centrifuges.

Tightening international sanctions clearly has limited effect. The U.S. is insisting that it will not resume negotiations until North Korea takes “concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.”

Pyongyang is in belligerent mood after it shelled an island disputed with South Korea the week before last. A U.S. aircraft carrier and other warships subsequently deployed to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea.

Prospects for resumption of the six-party talks chaired by China appear bleak. A dangerous confrontation may be set to escalate, with damaging consequences for stability and growth in Asia — one of the few regions of the world still in buoyant economic health.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.