What I Saw in North Korea and Why it Matters by Siegfried Hecker (Transcript)

So, most countries that have nuclear weapons today actually pursued both of these. And in the United States, we did that in the Manhattan project.

Okay. So with that as the premier, then let me just say that North Korea has mastered the entire plutonium fuel cycle. Fuel cycle, meaning everything from the time you dig it out of the ground, you mine it — and by the way, they have significant quantities of uranium ore in North Korea, none in South Korea but quite a bit in North Korea. So, they know how to mine it, mill it, convert it and then make fuel. The type of reactors that they chose to build that are called gas-cooled graphite moderated reactors. They’re patterned after the ones that the Brits built in the early 1950s, the first one of which was Calder Hall reactor. Turns out the benefits of this type of reactor is you can feed in natural uranium. You don’t have to enrich it a little bit first as you do with light water reactors. So that means the North Koreans, since they did this on their own, I mean they copied the Calder Hall reactor but they did it strictly on their own with no more help at that time from the Soviets, from the Chinese, from nobody. And so, they didn’t need enrichment, they were able to make their own fuel, used metallic fuel for these reactors instead of ceramic fuels because you need a higher uranium density since all you have is seven tenths of a percent of the fissile isotope. And so, they know how to make fuel.

Second, they built reactors. They finished one, the small one, five mega-watt electric. That’s very small. It doesn’t produce much electricity but it produces one bomb’s worth of plutonium a year if you can extract it. And so, they’ve had that reactor operating since 1986, off and on over the years. They had a 50-megawatt within one or two years of completion when they signed this agreement with the Americans in 1994, that was then halted. And I will tell you later through my visits, I found out it’s dead. It can’t be resurrected. They had a 200-megawatt electric reactor that actually would have produced quite a bit of electricity for North Korea. That was just in the beginning stages of construction. They halted that. That’s also not salvageable today. The back-end, the reprocessing facility, it’s just a complicated chemical engineering facility where you deal with all of this hot nucleus stuff that you’ve heard about related to Japan except, in this type of facility you handle it in hot cells with remote handling where that radioactivity is essentially separated from the workers. They know how to that. They patterned that facility after a facility in Belgium. Again, they built it by themselves. North Koreans are terrific engineers. They built this whole complex then by themselves. So, that’s the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

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So, what do they have? It’s sort of the bottom line slide. On the basis of my visits and my discussions with the North Koreans, and on the basis of looking with Google Earth as to whether that there’s a plume coming out of the cooling tower of the Yongyon reactor, we pretty much know how many days it’s operated. We can estimate what power level they operate at and we know what sort of reactor they have, what fuel they put in, and you can calculate how much plutonium they’ve made. So this is actually the part we know the best. And then some of the holes they filled-in in my personal discussions with them. So they have to date 24 to 42 kilograms sort of four to eight bombs worth. So — and they indeed do have the bomb because they exploded two of them, one didn’t work so well. The second one, as far as I’m concerned was successful.

Now, my view is that — since they’ve had have let’s say, one and a half test, the bombs that they have are most likely primitive bombs. In other words like our Nagasaki bomb which had to be delivered — it was huge 10,000 pounds, had to be delivered by a plane. It’s very difficult to miniaturize these things and it takes nuclear testing, it takes computational capability and I just don’t believe they’ve had the opportunity to get there yet.

Now, they have no plutonium in the pipeline even though they could still run that reactor, they’ve chosen not to run their reactor. It’s an interesting part of the North Korean story. They shut it down the last time in July of 2007. They’ve not restarted it. However, they could –again based on my visits, it would take about six months to get their reactor up and operating. And the reprocessing facility, it’s in cold stand-by — it’s in standby but they could operate it also.

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Now, uranium enrichment, we’ve suspected them of doing uranium enrichment over decades but we never really had the smoking gun. And that was the story of my last visit in November of 2010. They finally decided to show me what they’ve done in uranium enrichment. Quite frankly, I was expecting not much, sort of a couple of dozen centrifuges, maybe in a garage or somewhere, and instead, I’ll show you that they now have a small industrial scale centrifuge facility. And I’ll tell you what it’s for. And then I’ll also tell you what the potential problems are. I mentioned that here, is even though they’ve built this current facility that I saw to make low-enriched uranium, that stuff that goes into light water reactors, sort of 3% to 5% enriched in the isotope 235 instead of 80 to 90 which is what you would use for bombs.

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