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Plutonium from US-Supplied LWRs for North Korea: Do We Have to Worry About It?

Remarks of Victor Gilinsky at the "Forum on Promoting International Scientific, Technological and Economic Cooperation in the Korean Peninsula: Enhancing Stability and International Dialogue, " Villa Madama, Rome, Italy, June 1-2, 2000.

May 31, 2000
AUTHOR: Victor Gilinsky
Plutonium from US-Supplied LWRs for North Korea-Do We Have to Worry Ab.... (PDF) 13.70 KB

Plutonium from US-Supplied LWRs for North Korea

Do We Have to Worry About It?

We in the United States are at an important decision point in our nuclear relations with North Korea. In 1994 we signed a U.S.-North Korean nuclear agreement designed to prevent North Korea from getting physical access to militarily significant quantities of the nuclear explosive plutonium. We now have to decide whether we are going to interpret this agreement strictly in keeping with this purpose, or whether we will take a more "realistic" view—one that is more accommodating to the North.

The North's nuclear weapons work continues

Under the 1994 "Agreed Framework," the United States promised to supply the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with two large U.S.-type nuclear power reactors, called LWRs. In return, the North agreed to freeze its efforts to get nuclear explosives for bombs. The U.S. reactor project is underway— the South Korean prime contractor has started construction. For its part, the North has stopped operation of a small plutonium production reactor, has stopped construction of two larger ones, and has stopped operation of a plutonium separation plant. But worrisome intelligence continues to crop up concerning hidden DPRK nuclear weapons efforts. The U.S. Congress, in appropriating funds for additional nuclear aid to the North, wanted the President to certify that the North was not still surreptitiously seeking to obtain nuclear explosives. Instead, the President waived the requirement that he so certify. He can do that under the law, but the implications are obvious.

In an April 2000 letter with bipartisan support, House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman and Congressman Edward Markey told the President: "Your waiver of two key conditions appears to signal that North Korea can meet few if any of the obligations it committed to under the Agreed Framework and still receive all the benefits. . . . The most egregious example of this situation is your decision to waive the requirement that 'North Korea is not seeking to develop or acquire the capability to enrich uranium, or any additional capability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.'" Enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel are of course the two means of getting nuclear explosives.

Will promised IAEA inspection actually take place?

The President's finesse of the requirements of the law in this case suggests the same may happen when it comes to interpreting the North's obligations with respect to international inspection. Under the 1994 agreement, the DPRK can't get "key nuclear components" for the first LWR until they give the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to DPRK nuclear sites and thereby come into full compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty. The 1994 understanding was that the Agency would determine how much plutonium the North illicitly separated for bomb use in the early 1990s. The DPRK has blocked such inspections, and it looks as if the administration would rather not tangle with them on this issue. It appears that the issue of past DPRK violations of the NPT and IAEA safeguards will get taken seriously if the U.S. Congress insists on it, and not otherwise.

Will the administration apply the criteria of U.S. export law?

The same is true of the application of U.S. nuclear export requirements to this case. Most of the LWR equipment will come from foreign vendors, but some of it will almost certainly have to come from the U.S. Under the Atomic Energy Act, this would require an Agreement for Cooperation with North Korea and, subsequently, export licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. To issue an export license, the NRC must find that IAEA safeguards "will be applied" in perpetuity to the export and any plutonium generated through its use. The law precludes exports to countries that (the President concludes) have "terminated or abrogated IAEA safeguards; or . . . materially violated an IAEA safeguards agreement." Given North Korea's record, it is hard to see how its present government could credibly pass that test. Yet the LWR project is proceeding on the assumption that the administration will find a way around these basic U.S. nuclear export standards. One possibility is a Presidential waiver of the law's criteria for export eligibility. That would be subject to Congressional review, but it is possible that once the project develops sufficient political and economic momentum, it will be too difficult for Congress to overrule the President. The outcome will therefore depend on whether the Congress addresses this issue early.

"Proliferation-resistant" LWRs?

The North was very effective in using fears about its indigenous nuclear program to get a very generous deal from the United States. The North demanded, and U.S. negotiators agreed to supply, a nuclear power station of 2,000 electric megawatts. This amounts to a power output nearly ten times as large as that of the indigenous reactors the North had under construction, assuming they had been completed, and assuming they had actually generated electricity. (The North's one operating reactor was very small compared to these figures.) This reactor exchange was still supposed to make sense because the U.S. reactors, even if much larger than the ones they replaced, were said to be "proliferation-resistant." The idea was that the North Koreans would have a harder time getting the plutonium out of the new LWRs than out of their own reactors. In fact, they would, but labeling the LWRs as "proliferation-resistant" reactors is a bit much. (We didn't think LWRs were proliferationresistant when the Russians were going to sell similar ones to Iran.) Unfortunately—and the State Department apparently did not realize it at the time—the U.S.-supplied LWRs are so large that, even though they are not particularly efficient for plutonium production, they could still produce more plutonium than the indigenous Korean reactors they were supposed to replace.

The response to this awkward point has been that (a) the LWR plutonium is a lot less dangerous than the stuff the North might have had; that (b) the LWR plutonium can't really be used for bombs; and (c) the North would have a hard time upgrading their plutonium separation plant to handle LWR fuel. Well, the unequivocal short answer is that the LWR plutonium can be used for nuclear warheads—including very powerful ones. (This is why we have the world-wide IAEA inspection system.) And we can't count on the DPRK not being able to upgrade their plutonium separation plant.

Weak reprocessing controls

There is a related problem in the 1994 agreement—it does not prohibit the North Koreans from extracting plutonium from the LWRs' spent fuel. It appears our negotiators overlooked this point. The problem is addressed in a backhanded way in the December 1995 DPRK-KEDO reactor supply agreement, which allows KEDO to take ownership of the spent LWR fuel to be stored in North Korea. (KEDO, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, is the international organization set up by the United States to run the LWR project.) Still, this is not the same as a straightforward agreement that prohibits North Korea from extracting plutonium from this fuel, and the issue remains a potential problem. At the same time, that the State Department thought it necessary to include in the supply agreement a provision to restrict plutonium separation acknowledges that the plutonium from the LWRs is bomb material. It also acknowledges that the material would not be adequately protected by IAEA inspection—because, once separated, the LWR plutonium can be put to bomb use too quickly to prevent them from doing so.

Uneconomic and unsafe

Parenthetically, the very large size of the LWRs in relation to the tiny North Korean electric grid makes the project both uneconomic and unsafe. Although KEDO claims to be committed to U.S. and international safety standards, such a nuclear project—without reliable external power sources to supply power in the event of a total loss of reactor power—could not be licensed in the United States. Conventionally-fueled plants would provide a much more economic and sensible alternative for supplying electricity to North Korea. And even at this late date, KEDO could meet the Agreed Framework project target date of 2003 if it supplied the North with conventional electric generating capacity instead of the LWRs. That the DPRK continues to insist on these U.S.-type nuclear plants indicates clearly that, despite talk of electricity shortages in the North, generating electricity is of secondary importance as far as this project is concerned.

What now?

What should the KEDO countries do now? Above all, we need to insist now on an interpretation of the 1994 Agreed Framework that is consistent with its purpose. In selling the 1994 Agreed Framework to the public and Congress after it was signed, the U.S. administration emphasized the parties would match each other's performance, step by step. Unfortunately, as things stand now, the North doesn't have to dismantle its indigenous facilities until just before we complete the second LWR, which could take many years. By then, according to current U.S. State Department plans, we will have trained nearly 1,000 North Koreans in nuclear technology. If the DPRK doesn't in the end want to give up its nuclear weapon option, it could end up with what we give them in equipment and training, plus what they had.

The current guiding notion, that the faster KEDO completes the LWRs, the sooner the North will dismantle its indigenous nuclear plants, is breathtakingly naive. There is a reason that the DPRK picked the longest way to additional electrical generating capacity, rather than the shortest one. Moreover, as owners, they will get to decide whether to accept the LWR work at each stage, and they will control the pace of the project. Does anyone, for example, imagine that the recent (April 2000) strikes at the site by North Korean workers were spontaneous? No, let us be serious. We must insist on a progressive approach to compliance that is more consistent with the agreement as it was represented originally, one in which North Korea starts to dismantle its plants and allows increased IAEA inspection in step with LWR construction. The North will, of course, object. If in the end they refuse categorically to begin dismantling, or to get started on IAEA and NPT compliance—well, it is better to find that out about them earlier rather than after the project has developed a life of its own. And we in the United States should make clear that the requirements of U.S. nuclear export law will have to be met. If U.S. nuclear equipment is vital to the project, it should come only when North Korea is a trustworthy recipient.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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