Tag Archives: nuclear reprocessing North Korea

The Secret Nuclear Weapons Capabilities of States

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel.

South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter North Korean attack. South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Plutonium separated from spent fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory  and the Idaho National Laboratory have encouraged South Korea’s interest in plutonium separation because of their own interests in the process. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-US report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. 

Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has domestic political support, however, for its demand that South Korea have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan. 

In 2001 Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (INL) persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program.

At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six US national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing. The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new US-Republic of Korea Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated when South Korea demanded the same right to reprocess the Reagan administration had granted Japan in 1987. 

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-US Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior US official with knowledge of the situation, told that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Excerpts from  Frank N. von Hippel, Jungmin Kang, Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger, January 13, 2022

Who is Afraid of North Korea

President Trump agreed in September 2017 to send more of the Pentagon’s “strategic assets” to South Korea on a rotational basis to deter North Korean provocations, but what exactly that means remains something of a mystery.

The U.S. assets — typically defined as submarines, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons or bombers — have long been involved in the standoff that began with the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement after open warfare subsided between the two Koreas.

The U.S. Navy typically keeps the movements of its submarines secret, but it also has periodically sent them to port in South Korea. The USS Michigan, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine, has appeared at Busan Naval Base in South Korea at least twice in 2017. It is capable of carrying cruise missiles and elite Navy SEALs, although not ballistic missiles.

More recently, the Navy announced last week it has plans for a massive exercise involving three aircraft carriers — the USS Nimitz, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan — and their associated strike groups, each of which include dozens of aircraft and thousands of sailors and Marines.

Excerpts from  Dan Lamothe, In standoff with North Korea, the U.S. keeps deployment of ‘strategic assets’ mysterious, Washington Post, Oct. 29, 2017

Who is Watching North Korea

The 38 North, a US institute monitoring North Korea said that the country appears to be beginning or planning to extract plutonium, the core material of a nuclear bomb, at a nuclear plant in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.  Satellite imagery dated April 11,  2016 shows a vehicle loaded with tanks or casks in the premises of a nuclear reprocessing facility, according to the 38 North website operated by Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute in Washington.  “Such tanks or casks could be used to supply chemicals used in a reprocessing campaign intended to produce additional plutonium, haul out waste products or a number of other related activities,” the institute said.  Similar vehicles were observed in the early 2000s, it said, when North Korea extracted plutonium apparently as part of its nuclear programmes.

On April 4, 2016 the institute said plumes were detected from the reprocessing facility fueling the speculation that Pyongyang has engaged in additional production of plutonium.

Excerpts from Satellite images show North Korea may have begun extracting plutonium at nuclear facility, says US institute, Associated Press, Apr. 16, 2016