On November 12, during my most recent visit to the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex with Stanford University colleagues John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, we were shown a 25 to 30 megawatt-electric (MWe) experimental light-water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction. It is North Korea’s first attempt at LWR technology and we were told it is proceeding with strictly indigenous resources and talent. The target date for operation was said to be 2012, which appears much too optimistic.
At the fuel fabrication site, we were taken to a new facility that contained a modern, small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges that was recently completed and said to be producing low enriched uranium (LEU) destined
for fuel for the new reactor. Unlike all previously visited Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the uranium enrichment facility was ultra-modern and clean. We were also told that this facility was constructed and operated strictly with indigenous resources and talent. These facilities appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capability. That can be accomplished much more expeditiously by restarting the dormant 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, constructing a new,
larger gas-graphite reactor and conducting additional nuclear tests; but we saw no evidence of continued plutonium production at Yongbyon. 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. This visit allowed us to answer some questions about Pyongyang’s nuclear directions; but it also raised many more. How the United States and its partners respond
to these developments may help to shape whether Pyongyang will rely more on the bomb or begin a shift toward nuclear electricity, which it wants both for economic and symbolic reasons.