The Peninsula

How Might Russia Respond to an Accident at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility?

Published May 24, 2017
Category: North Korea

This is the second in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North Korea, Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States.

By Khrustalev Vladimir

In the case of hypothetical accident with depressurization and ejection of radiation from a North Korean nuclear reactor: what actions might Russia take?

To start: the author must notify that the text written below is the author’s opinion and does not contain the information from inside documents of Russian authorities. Nevertheless, the possible Russian actions in this situation are rather predictable.

Firstly, Russia’s actions will be set by the scale of accident. And the scale of accident is determined by some objective limitations that are related to particular qualities of the working North Korean reactor.

It has rather low thermal power (not more than 30 megawatts) – so the supposed ejection of radioactive materials is hardly significant enough to be a threat for the life and health of Russia’s adjacent territories population.

For comparison – the full thermal power of Chernobyl’s RBMK-1000 was 3200 megawatts. So the full thermal power of North Korean reactor is less than 1 percent! It is the thermal power that determines the speed and volume of accumulated radioactive materials and also the potential energy intensity of different accidents with a thermal explosion. Even if we take the maximum valuation of territory recommended for evacuation (in big part just as precautionary measure) in areas adjacent to Chernobyl disaster – we’ll see only 2600 square kilometers. Any significant disaster’s effects (not all of them were dangerous) were recorded on the territory about 200 thousands square kilometers in size. In case of a hypothetical accident with the North Korean reactor we can unhesitatingly reduce these figures by 1-2 orders!

The supposed zone of occurrence of any conditions dangerous (at least potentially) for life and health is the territory of one or several neighboring counties. It is the maximum. Most of the accident scenarios set local effects.

Nevertheless Russia can’t ignore the hypothetically dangerous emergency situation. In many ways because the experience shows that any nuclear accident is perceived by citizens disproportionally dramatically to the actual hazard level. So, primarily the enhanced control of the radiation situation will be taken and the civil defense structures work will be implemented. Also, an awareness campaign for adjacent Russian regions’ (primarily Primorsky region) citizens about the current situation will be held.

Also, the Russian Federation (in case of a disaster that does not threaten Russia, but is still serious) will evacuate Russian residents who are in the potentially dangerous regions of North Korea. At the same time, Pyongyang will be offered neighborly assistance in eliminating the disaster’s effects. Russian specialists have unique experience in this field, have appropriate technologies, machines, equipment, and etc. In case of a nuclear accident our country is ready to offer help to any neighboring country and North Korea is not an exception.

From the point of view of the foreign policy approach the Russian Federation’s position basically implies any country’s inside freedom of choice to accept or reject help in this kind of situation. Therefore, efforts will be made to counteract attempts to use this accident for any kind of interventional actions against North Korea. Whenever possible there will be attempts to apply for external assistance in the specified formats of the UN and IAEA.

The most likely external partners in undertaking the operation are China, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With the last two countries mentioned there exist substantial communication in the nuclear field including the matters related to elimination of the consequences of any kind of nuclear activity.

From the technical point of view: the Russian Far East territory has sufficient stocks of materiel including some for in the case of nuclear accidents. The transport aviation operations of the Ministry of Emergency Situations or (in case of a lack of necessary equipment) the Ministry of Defense can be easily used for delivery of the needed volumes of materiel to North Korea. In the most prompt scenario the cargo will be delivered to the needed location in less than 24 hours. Most likely it won’t be necessary to deliver special heavy machinery (capable of functioning in the nuclear accident zone and providing protection to the personnel from radiation).  It will be easier to consult with the local specialists about the best ways of equipping common construction and the military machinery of North Korea with additional shielding. Russia has corresponding experience from the Chernobyl disaster. And North Korea would have appropriate industrial facilities.

Regarding the humanitarian aspect: the Russian Federation will also be ready to provide help for the evacuated civilian population with medicine and food supplies and other needs.

The other aspect is helping people affected by radiation. Probably (in case of other party’s agreement and medical possibility) the patients will be even evacuated to Russia for therapy. Our country has appropriate medical and scientific institutions that are highly practically experienced in healing such patients. Also, Russia is ready (if needed) to support corresponding specialists deployment to North Korea for work with injured people!

As for the situation with North Korean nuclear facilities: Russia does not accept any forceful actions against North Korean nuclear facilities in principle.

Firstly, an attack against these facilities could create consequences much more significant than just an accident. The point is that the impact can cause the depressurization of nuclear waste storage and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities. Their destruction at the same time with the reactor would create a completely different hazard level – including the territory of Primorsky region that is adjacent to North Korea.

Secondly, such an attack would be considered a dangerous precedent for the destruction of nuclear facilities in another country’s territory. If such actions are taken by the U.S., Moscow will have to raise the limits of what is permissible in its foreign policy and to change a number of approaches to American activities near Russian borders. Also Moscow will have to accelerate joint activities in the area of collective security with China.

Therefore the Russian position implies the necessity of dialog and mutual concessions between Pyongyang and Washington. It also implies the destructiveness of both the approach in which only Pyongyang must make concessions and the threats of force against the North Korean nuclear complex.

Khrustalev Vladimir is a Russian defense analyst and editor-in-chief and author of “Northeast Asian Military Studies” (NEAMS.RU). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from mariusz kluzniak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Return to the Peninsula

Stay Informed
Register to receive updates from KEI