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Engaging the DPRK Enrichment and Small LWR Program
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Engaging the DPRK Enrichment and Small LWR Program
DPRK , light water reactors , engagement , Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone
  • Ⅰ. Introduction

    The unveiling of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea’s (hereafter DPRK’s) enrichment and pilot light water reactor program in November 2010 offers another moment for engagement with Pyongyang, another point of leverage over how its nuclear weapons program evolves, and a new opportunity to determine whether it can be influenced to recommit to the global nuclear non proliferation and disarmament regime.

    We believe that it may be possible to slow and even reverse the DPRK’s nuclear breakout by collaboration that assists it to develop small light water reactors (LWRs) that are safe, reliable, and above all, safeguarded, and that integrates its enrichment capacity into a regional enrichment consortium, possibly as part of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Such an engagement could entail some or all of the following steps:

    An engagement of this type on nuclear energy issues cannot occur in a vacuum. LWR engagement should be accompanied by engagement on a host of other policy, economic, and humanitarian issues, but most importantly, it must be accompanied by engagement on a wide range of other energy sector issues, ranging from electricity transmission and distribution grid redevelopment, conventional power and fuels supply, and development of energy markets to energy efficiency, renewable energy, with capacitybuilding across a broad spectrum of energy topics to make implementation possible.1)

    We outline these ideas in full recognition that other enabling conditions would be needed to move the DPRK away from its current nuclear weapons strategy, including many steps that have long been discussed, partly implemented, but halted or stalled due to bad faith or coordination difficulties between the United States and the DPRK in the past, and between the five parties and the DPRK in the last four years. We understand that many policymakers suffer from “DPRK fatigue” and do not believe that any positive progress is possible until the North Korean regime changes or collapses, and that any dialogue under current conditions of high tension would be counter-productive.

    We note, however, that political and security conditions have changed very quickly in the Korean peninsula in the past, and that the DPRK itself has switched gears almost overnight based on decisions at the top─not least due to the absolute central authority wielded by its leader. We therefore believe it is critically important that apparently far-fetched concepts be examined carefully for their marginal costs and benefits before they are discarded based on old policy assumptions, or worse, based on emotional or stereotypic reaction to the current situation.

    We were prompted to write this essay by the fact that the most important (but least covered by mass media) part of Siegfried Hecker’s report2) on the DPRK’s uranium enrichment and small light water reactor (LWR) program was that this program offers a new entry point for engagement and leverage over the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program.3) His report was issued after a Stanford University team exited from the DPRK following a mid-November (2010) visit. While in the DPRK the Stanford team observed a previously undeclared (to the West, at least) uranium enrichment facility at a complex in Yongbyon with about 2000 operating centrifuge units, including modernlooking control facilities. Moreover, the team was told that the DPRK was planning to construct a domestically-built light water reactor (LWR) with an estimated size of 25 30 megawatts of electric generating capacity (MWe), and were shown a site where initial work on the reactor was underway. This unit is very small by global standards, as typical modern reactors are 1,000 MWe or larger. The very small DPRK LWR is apparently designed to be a pilot unit for a fleet of small reactors, each perhaps on the order of 100 MWe, serving the DPRK grid.

    Though their North Korean hosts told the Stanford delegation that the DPRK planned to enrich uranium only to about 3.5% U-235, consistent with production of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for LWR fuel, with some reconfiguration the facility could, in theory, produce high-enriched uranium (HEU), which could be used in making nuclear weapons. The acquisition by the DPRK of enrichment capabilities of this magnitude immediately raised for the United States and its allies the specter of Iran-like behavior, where a nominally peaceful enrichment program operating outside of full IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards gradually increases the fractional enrichment towards HEU levels. Faced with the distinct possibility that the DPRK could acquire, within a relatively short time, a second path to fissile material for nuclear weapons, it is urgent, as Hecker suggested, to figure out what to do in response to these startling developments.

    One opportunity to explore the DPRK’s proclivity to shift to a joint rather than a one hundred percent indigenous small LWR is the Global Nuclear Security Summit to be hosted by South Korea in March 2012. South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak issued a formal invitation to Kim Jong Il to attend the summit provided that the DPRK demonstrates a clear denuclearization commitment, rejoins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and comply with its regulations.4) The ROK’s main rationale for issuing the invitation is that the DPRK’s facilities and fissile material presents a serious security issue, a central concern of the Summit, not safety issues─although the latter is also to be discussed as a security issue in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.5) Nonetheless, the ROK could seriously consider using the Summit as a way to kick-start dialogue with the DPRK over the safety of its small LWR program which is a more pressing issue in reality than facility and materials security in the DPRK, given the stringent security controls in place in the North.

    1)See David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, “Engaging the DPRK Part 2: Transforming the DPRK through Energy Sector Development,” in 38 North (30 May 2011), available at ; David von Hippel, Peter Hayes, James H. Williams, Chris Greacen, Mick Sagrillo, and Timothy Savage, “International energy assistance needs and options for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” Energy Policy 36-2 (February 2008), pp. 541-552. A number of other articles and reports by the authors on the topic of energy sector engagement with the DPRK are available.   2)Siegfried S. Hecker, A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex, NAPSNet Special Report (22 November 2010), available at The fact that the DPRK chose to reveal this facility specifically to a group of visitors almost uniquely suited to appreciate its significance and to be listened to with respect when they returned to the US surely says something about the DPRK’s feel for its international audience.   3)David Sanger and William Broad, for example, managed to ignore entirely Hecker’s own conclusion while reporting on the Administration’s position that engagement, at least in the context of the negotiations as pursued in the past, was undesirable (David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “North Korean Nuclear Ability Seen to Far Outpace Iran’s,” New York Times, 14 December 2010, available at ). A significant exception to the generally abysmal reporting on the Hecker report was Phil Stewart, “Q+A: North Korea’s uranium enrichment: motives, details,” Reuters (21 November 2010), available at    4)Jae-soon Chang, “Lee Offers to Invite N.K. Leader If Pyongyang Commits to Denuclearization,” Yonhap (9 May 2011), available at    5)Bong Hyun Kim, “Is Nuclear-free East Asia Possible?: Opportunities and Constraints,” presentation at Jeju Forum “Is Nuclear Free East Asia Possible? Opportunities and Constraints,” 28 May 2011, forthcoming at

    Ⅱ. Possible Responses

    There are only three possible ways that the United States and its allies can respond to the DPRK enrichment situation and, more broadly, to its nuclear power/nuclear weapons programs.6)

    The first is to contain the program and, eventually, launch a military strike to disable the DPRK’s nuclear facilities. The second is to continue with strategic drift, that is, continue to do nothing of substance to engage the DPRK, thereby continuing to allow the North Koreans to develop their nuclear capabilities and gain leverage in dictating the terms of negotiations. The third is to find a way to engage the DPRK in negotiations to return to a denuclearization trajectory by offering the North Koreans something of value, aware of their stronger negotiating position, but also mindful of their motivations.

    Of these options, the first is untenable. In 1994 when this option was discussed in depth in the Clinton White House, it rapidly became clear that a strike without warning, while technically feasible, was not politically possible. The United States would have to warn its nationals living in the ROK of the pending threat of combat hostilities, including evacuation from Seoul, and the political impact of such an announcement internationally, especially in US-China relations, but also domestically in the ROK, would be unsupportable.

    In addition, about ten thousand people live in the town of Yongbyon, and the enrichment complex itself is located in a cluster of large office and laboratory buildings.7) Even using precision weapons, a significant number of civilian casualties seem inevitable to result from a missile strike, and would likely be denounced internationally.

    A missile strike deep in DPRK territory would almost surely provoke a major military response, and with thousands of artillery emplacements within tens of kilometers of Seoul, the result could be full-scale war, with widespread destruction and loss of life on both sides of the DMZ. Undoubtedly the US-ROK alliance would prevail in another Korean War, likely in a matter of weeks or months (assuming that other countries do not join on the DPRK side). However, the American public, already fatigued by two nearly decadelong wars and reeling from the effects of the deepest recession in two generations, will be unenthusiastic about a third war, and the pressure on the White House to avoid such an outcome is enormous─as is clear to everyone including the DPRK.

    Recovery after a full-scale war would take at least a decade and trillions of dollars to reconstruct the physical and social capital of the northern part of Korea.8) Even if a missile strike on the Yongbyon nuclear complex did not somehow escalate to major war, it is not clear that it would set back the bulk of the DPRK enrichment program (or, for that matter, its nuclear weapons program) because the DPRK may have other enrichment components stockpiled, or even another entire functioning enrichment plant (again, Iranlike), buried deep in a granite mountain somewhere in the rugged spine of Korea.

    The second option, attempting to apply additional international pressure but not coming to terms with the DPRK’s current leverage and motivations, is unlikely to result in anything but further advances in the DPRK nuclear program, further inter-Korean military skirmishes, and shrill rhetoric on both sides. It also affords more time and incentive for the DPRK to align with nations and sub-national groups bent on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other international mischief. Short of China shutting off the DPRK’s oil supply, which it is unlikely to do, the United States has little ability to inflict more pain on the DPRK or its leadership, given how isolated it already is. Simply waiting for the North Korean people to literally collapse under the strain of hardships arising from the regime reinforced and compounded by the impacts of international sanctions is indefensible from a humanitarian perspective. Given how tough the Korean people are, it is likely a futile strategy in any case.

    That leaves the third option, to engage the DPRK in a way that acknowledges their strategic gains of the last eight years,9) and attempts to converge on a common goal with its leadership as it nears a national milestone year (Kim Il Sung’s centenary in 2012) and a transition in leadership.

    This approach assumes that China and other parties would also push forward the opening of the DPRK economy, that other political and military steps are taken to reduce tension in Northeast Asia, and that large-scale bilateral and multilateral assistance resumes that is aimed at benefiting the welfare of the North Korean people. We have previously described how such engagement must include assistance to the DPRK to improve its crumbling energy sector, including assistance with electricity transmission and distribution, coal production, renewable energy, fuels and electricity market development, and perhaps above all, energy efficiency.10) These types of assistance must still form the backbone of engagement to stabilize and ultimately transform the DPRK into a “normal” state without taking a devastating detour via war or chaotic collapse.

    But if the United States and its allies must now work to enable the DPRK to trade its enrichment and plutonium weapons over time for development assistance, what could be done to assist it to develop and deploy small LWRs, if doing so will help to accelerate engagement?

    6)See Peter Hayes, DPRK Enriched Uranium Highlights Need for New US DPRK Policy (22 November 2010), and available at ; Peter Hayes, “Talk Best Path to Avoid a War Between North and South Korea,” HeraldSun.com.au (25 November 2010), available at    7)See, for example, satellite images shown in Siegfried S. Hecker, “Redefining denuclearization in North Korea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (20 December 2010), available at   8)The implications on reconstruction of the energy sector in a “war” pathway are outlined in part, in Peter Hayes and David von Hippel, “DPRK ‘Collapse’ Pathways: Implications for the Energy Sector and for Strategies of Redevelopment/Support,” prepared for “The Korea Project: Planning for the Long Term,” the 1st Annual Conference of the CSIS-USC Korea Project, 20-21 August 2010, Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California,  available at    9)Specifically, since the October 2002 visit to the DPRK in which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted his North Korean counterparts with allegations of its pursuit of uranium enrichment capabilities.   10)See, for example, David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, DPRK Energy Sector Assistance to Accompany Progress in Denuclearization Discussions: Options and Considerations, produced as part of the project “Improving Regional Security and Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula: U.S. Policy Interests and Options.”, organized by Joel Wit of Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute for East Asia and the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C. (2009), and available at

    Ⅲ. Why Does the DPRK Want Small LWRs?

    Before we analyze what should be done, we need to explain why the DPRK wants LWRs in the first place. In turn, this question can be disaggregated into two queries: why does the DPRK want nuclear power? And, why is it now pursuing smaller reactors?

    To answer the first query, we must delve into some obscure history. Starting in the 1980s, if not before, the DPRK’s domestic nuclear power program had the stated goal of using the DPRK’s uranium resource as a source of energy to augment its existing (mostly) coal and hydroelectric power plant fleet. Of course, production of fissile material for nuclear weapons (ultimately accomplished with their domestically-built 5 MWe-equivalent graphitemoderated reactor11)) was a subtext of the nuclear power development program, but the DPRK also, like dozens of other countries, wished to be a member of the nuclear energy club, as a badge of technological mastery and development status.12) Once established, that goal became a point of national pride. To that end, the DPRK contracted with the former Soviet Union to build two reactors at what later became the Simpo site on the DPRK’s eastern coast. This deal stalled over payment for the reactors, and was never completed, but the DPRK clearly linked its joining of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (under Soviet pressure at American behest) with gaining nuclear power plants.13)

    The Soviet reactors became moot when the Soviet Union collapsed. A new discussion ensued in 1991 of light water reactors in the DPRK first in the joint ROK-DPRK nuclear talks in 1992, and then as part of the US-DPRK talks over the discrepancies in its declaration of nuclear facilities to the IAEA as to how much plutonium it produced and separated. Thus, when as a part of the US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework, the DPRK agreed to give up its plans for a domestically-built graphite moderated reactor that would produce more plutonium, it was with the understanding that the DPRK would receive two modern, large (1000 MWe) LWR units, to be built at Simpo in the DPRK under the auspices of the multi-nation Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), a consortium led by the United States.14) At that point, the KEDO reactors, or their equivalent, became the benchmark for energy assistance, all the more so because they had been blessed by Kim Il Sung, founding father of the DPRK, in his meeting with President Jimmy Carter in July 1994, just before Kim died.

    Also buried in this history lies an important and largely unknown factor that explains why the North Koreans aren’t trying to build a large LWR like those that were partly built at KEDO between 1996 and 2002, but instead, are now striving to build a small LWR.

    First, the KEDO-DPRK plan for two (or even one) 1000 MWe units ignored one very big problem: these LWRs couldn’t be used on the existing DPRK electricity transmission and distribution (T&D) grid, even in 1994.

    By 1994 the DPRK grid was already in poor condition. Then (as now), the system used substations, switchgear, and control equipment equivalent to 1950s or 60s-vintage equipment in the West, and with decisions on which plants should operate when communicated by telephone and telex, rather than computerized control equipment, the grid was subject to frequent failures. Operating a 1000 MWe LWR on the grid would have been (and still is) impossible, in part because the grid is sufficiently unstable that the LWR would be shutting down regularly, requiring lengthy restarts and risking damage to the plant, but also because the DPRK power system, even if it were functioning perfectly, is simply too small, in terms of generating capacity, to allow the safe operation of a nuclear plant as large as 1000  MWe.15) Only with two large electrical interties to much larger grid systems─for example, two interties to the ROK grid each capable of carrying 1 to 3 GW of power, or one each to the Russian and ROK grids─would the KEDO nuclear plants at Simpo have been able to operate safely.

    Indeed, it has long been our assumption that had the KEDO plants been completed, they would have been operated by connecting them directly to the ROK (not DPRK) grid, whereby the DPRK would sell the power from the reactors to the ROK, using the proceeds to pay off the loan for the capital cost of the reactors. The DPRK would then re-import smaller amounts of power from the ROK grid via different, smaller, and differently configured, transmission connections.

    Why did the North Koreans ask for a large LWR if they couldn’t run it on their grid? In fact, they didn’t. A senior DPRK power engineer told us that knowing full well that the DPRK faced a grid constraint on the size of reactor unit to be used (the DPRK power engineers had briefed their uppers on this technical reality), what the DPRK actually asked for in 1994 were units of 400 MWe, but those were only made in Russia, and when the ROK and United States wouldn’t agree to supply Russian-made units, the DPRK political delegation negotiating the US-DPRK Agreed Framework agreed to accept the larger (1000 MWe) LWR units, along with supplies of heavy fuel oil until the reactors were operational. Those negotiators on the US-ROK side who understood the problem of using large units in the DPRK grid either assumed that the DPRK T&D system would be “fixed” by the time (10 or more years) the KEDO reactors came on line, or that it was the DPRK’s problem to solve, especially given that US-ROK negotiators had offered coalfired power plants to the DPRK instead of reactors, and had this reasonable proposal rejected.

    Today, the DPRK runs a fragmented grid that we estimate has average total nationwide generation on the order of only 2000 MWe Its national electricity consumption, after accounting for losses, is about the same as that of the US states of Delaware or New Hampshire, but is used by a population 40 to 50 times larger. On such a grid, smaller LWRs make sense from a technical point of view. Smaller reactors could be deployed near demand centers, supported by nearby large (by DPRK standards) hydro or coal-fired power plants, reducing (reportedly considerable) transmission and distribution losses, and accommodating the reality of a fragmented grid. Also, from a practical point of view, the DPRK cannot hope to be able to complete a large LWR without considerable outside help. At this point, in fact, some key components of large LWRs, such as castings for containment vessels, can be made in only a few places in the world.

    The DPRK could not hope to develop the technologies for modern LWRs in a reasonable time frame (say, less than 20 years) without considerable outside assistance.16) The list of technologies to be mastered for the different elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, oversight institutions to be built, standards and procedures to be put in place, and, above all, human capacity to be developed to produce and operate a modern LWR is long and daunting. The DPRK can, however, almost certainly build a pilot 25 MWe LWR, albeit of unknown safety, using crude electro-mechanical systems rather than modern LWR control technologies and materials.? Our guess is that a crash job could be done in 2-3 years, depending on how much of a start they have on the task as of today. How well, long, or safely such a reactor would operate are certainly worthwhile questions, particularly for those nations (starting with Japan) likely to be downwind from the reactor site. Successfully building and safely operating even a small LWR requires many of the same capabilities and systems needed for a large LWR, albeit at a different scale. As Sig Hecker, Chaim Braun, and Robert Carlin explain:

    We surmise that the DPRK aims to design, construct, and turn on the plant by 2012 as part of its centennial celebration. Kim Jong Il has promised North Koreans a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, and exhorts the people to work toward that goal. By any standard measure of human progress, that goal looks unachievable, but having a LWR well under development (if not operating) would be an important national symbol for leaders to point to as a totem of national strength, as well as being an accomplishment to help cement the national credibility of the new leader (that is, Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, and his announced successor), both with the populace as a whole and with the DPRK military.

    In addition to the grid and other technical factors, from a geopolitical perspective, there are at least two additional possible reasons for the DPRK to pursue domestic small LWR development.

    First, the domestic enrichment program needed to fuel small LWRs offers the DPRK a potential slow-but-steady second track to nuclear weapons using HEU (what is feared to be the Iran model), while maintaining possession of their existing plutonium stockpiles/plutonium nuclear devices to support their bargaining position.

    Second, the development of a small domestic LWR is a negotiating ploy, though an expensive one, that will be used by the DPRK as another route to a reactor on DPRK soil, a “KEDO-LWRs Mark 2,” only this time on DPRK terms, rather than on international terms. The DPRK would likely see the enrichment-to-HEU option as a fallback position, available if acquisition of a small LWR fails and the DPRK remains in contention with the international community over its nuclear program, rather than deeply engaged.

    11)The 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon never actually generated electricity. The 5 MWe rating was nominal, based on the estimated amount of power that could be generated by the heat (about 25 thermal megawatts) that the plant produced, if the reactor were hooked up to a turbine and generator. In fact, the United States installed a heating system at Yongbyon as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework. The heating system used heavy fuel oil to heat buildings at the complex during the complicated process of canning the spent fuel from the 5 MWe reactor.   12)With reasonably ample supplies of coal and hydroelectric potential, and low reliance on imports (except of oil, which is largely unrelated to debates over nuclear power), the DPRK cannot claim the same need for nuclear power as an energy (supply) security strategy that has been used to justify investments in nuclear power by Japan, the ROK and Taiwan (for example). The DPRK can, however, claim a need for nuclear power on the same grounds that many other countries have been using in recent years, that is, that nuclear power development is needed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as of local and regional air pollutants.   13)Siegfried S. Hecker, Chaim Braun, and Robert L. Carlin, “North Korea’s Light-Water Reactor Ambitions,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management 39-3 (Spring 2011), p. 19.   14)The KEDO LWR project was terminated in 2006, but documents from the project remain available at    15)See J. Bickel, “Grid Stability and Safety Issues Associated with Nuclear Power Plants,” prepared for the Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Beijing, China, 14-16 May 2001, and available at    16)See, for example, L. J. Droutman, et al., International Deployment of Commercial Capability in Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Nuclear Power Plant Design, Manufacture, and Construction for Developing Countries, Oak Ridge National Laboratory report, ORNL/Sub-7494/4, dated October 1979. This report is distributed as a companion NAPSNet Special Report to this report. This report, by authors from the Westinghouse Corp. Nuclear Division, though written three decades ago and from the perspective of a “generic” developing country lacking the DPRK’s rocky history with nations that could be potential commercial nuclear industry partners, nonetheless provides a useful and thorough, if not up-to-date, summary of the issues that the DPRK will face as it builds a nuclear industry. Considerations of these issues can help to provide the international community with clues as to leverage points where the DPRK will need, and perhaps be willing to make concessions to obtain, outside assistance in order to develop its program in a timely fashion.   17)Siegfried S. Hecker, Chaim Braun, and Robert L. Carlin, op. cit., p. 23.

    Ⅳ. What Can We Do Now?

    Now that the DPRK has been revealed to have a relatively mature enrichment program, based on its own uranium resources, and is developing a domestic LWR, what is the international community to do? The first task is to block the independent HEU track. The DPRK does not appear to be pursuing a resumption of plutonium production, apparently satisfied that its existing inventory of plutonium suffices for political and military purposes.

    The essence of the approach that we recommend is to commence dialogue with the North Koreans to determine how to ensure that its light water reactor program is safe, produces reliable electricity, and that the DPRK becomes once again a member of the international nuclear energy community in good standing. Should the DPRK be inclined to resume dialogue on such a possible pathway away from the war and isolation it faces without engagement, some combination of the following possible steps are necessary, if still insufficient,  to move towards a collaborative outcome.

    Although now may not be viewed as an opportune moment to engage the DPRK on the issue of its nuclear weapons security, due first to the high tension in Korea after the clashes between the DPRK and ROK military, and second, to the wish of the nuclear weapons states to avoid any appearance of agreeing with the DPRK that it has become a nuclear weapons state, we suggest that the opposite is the case. Now is precisely the time that the DPRK may be looking for a way out of the corner in which it has put itself.

    Moreover, we note that any serious movement forward to incremental disarmament will also bring about a period in which serious and detailed discussions should take place with the DPRK on the urgent issue of command and control, security systems, and reassurance mechanisms that need to be established to manage its plutonium weapons and fissile material. Such issues include development of a declaratory and operational doctrine for fissile materials that accords with standard practices, along with the adoption of a  raft of non-proliferation controls required to ensure that the DPRK plutonium and dual-use technologies do not “leak” overseas.

    18)According to nuclear experts, small commercial reactors under development include: mPower Reactor B&W, NuScale NuScale Power, 200 Class Toshiba Westinghouse, HI-SMUR Holtec International, Inc., Hyperion Hyperion Power Generation, Prism General Electric-Hitachi, HTGR/MHR General Atomics, Energy Multiplier Module (EM2) General Atomics.   19)World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power Reactors,” updated November 2010, and available at    20)L. J. Droutman, et al., op. cit.   21)This press, commissioned with Kim Il Sung present in 1989, has been mentioned in the DPRK press a number of times over the years (for example, KCNA, 14 Jun 1984, 9 Oct 1989, and 13 Oct 1989, Choson, 12 Jan 2006).   22)S. Levy, Update Review of Safety Aspects of Nuclear Power Program in Republic of Korea, prepared for World Bank/UNDP, April 1982. This report is distributed as a companion NAPSNet special report to this report.   23)John Pomfret and Chico Harlan, “North Korea makes gestures toward calm after South’s drills,” Washington Post (21 December 2010), available at    24)Rough calculations by the authors based on the reported annual capacity of 8000 kg-SWU (separative work units) suggest that the 2000 centrifuges the Stanford team saw would be able to support about 50-70 MWe of nuclear generation.

    Ⅴ. A Way Forward

    Nuclear power development in a nation, especially if it is to be achieved (largely) independently, requires simultaneous progress on a number of industrial fronts, but some will take much longer than others. An assessment of the DPRK’s situation with regard to each component of the nuclear energy fuel chain and related institutions, based on an analytical structure like that provided in the 1979 Westinghouse report on nuclear power adoption in developing countries generally25) (as well as more recent compendia), would be expected to help to identify where outside assistance would be of most use to the DPRK in reaching its nuclear power development goals. A result of such an assessment would be an identification of what types of assistance are most likely to elicit desired behavior from the DPRK in terms of addressing the international community’s nuclear weapons proliferation and other concerns regarding the North Korean nuclear program. Pending completion of such an assessment, and building on the listing of engagement steps above, the table that follows offers some initial thoughts on how an engagement with the DPRK on its small LWR program, and the (many) related energy sector activities that must accompany it, should be structured. All elements of this table, especially costs and timing, represent very preliminary, order-ofmagnitude guesses on our part, and should be taken merely as a starting point for discussion on this complex topic.

    [Table 1.] The Structure of the Engagement Strategy with the DPRK’s LWR Program


    The Structure of the Engagement Strategy with the DPRK’s LWR Program

    25)L. J. Droutman, et al., op. cit.

    Ⅵ. What Would It Cost, and Would It Work?

    It is possible, though far from certain, that the offer of a “made-in-DPRK” small LWR engagement strategy, plus the other diplomatic and security engagements that would be necessary to achieve the desired outcome, would suffice to induce the DPRK to put their enrichment program under IAEA safeguards.

    Would the DPRK accept a “KEDO Mark 2” package at this point? Possibly, if near-term use of a small nuclear reactor as in steps 1 and 2 above served their domestic needs as a symbol of national progress and victory. But the DPRK would have to be convinced that the international community would follow through on the small LWR commitment, given its negative experience with KEDO Mark 1.

    We previously estimated the “value” to the DPRK of the two KEDO LWRs at about $1.25 billion in net present value terms.26) This value─or rather, avalue for the package implicitly or explicitly determined by the DPRK based on their own assumptions─for better or worse, serves as the benchmark against which will be judged the value of any package of engagement activities on small LWR development, together with non-nuclear energy sector assistance, that might be offered to the DPRK. A package of significantly lower perceived value will likely not induce the DPRK to freeze or abandon its routes to nuclear weapons. By our very rough and preliminary estimates, the $1.25 billion present value might be enough, over 5-10 years, to fund the startup of a small LWR industry in the DPRK (likely pursued in joint venture with the ROK for at least some hard-to-make components), plus perhaps two-to-three in-country prototypes/commercial demonstration units.

    An engagement strategy like the one above has, as an ancillary outcome, the establishment of an ROK-DPRK joint venture to manufacture and market small LWRs. An international market for small LWRs may well develop on its own in the coming years, and certainly a number of nuclear industry and research groups have presented concepts for broad deployment of small LWRs.27) We believe that the small LWRs produced by an ROK-DPRK consortium would probably find many willing buyers, particularly among countries not now using nuclear energy. Some of these nations will want nuclear power largely to fulfill specific resource needs or reduce their carbon footprint, but others, much like the DPRK, will want it primarily as a badge of status and development, largely independent of practicality or cost.

    The sale of many small reactors is not necessarily a positive development, as it would lead to many more different nations having access to nuclear materials, as well as the existence of many more different nuclear materials locations and transport pathways for the international community to secure, monitor and safeguard. But if deployment of small reactors in many countries comes tightly bundled with a stringent international regime of safeguards, especially if coupled with fuel supply/take back arrangements in all countries,  some of the risk associated with such large-scale deployment of small reactors can be reduced, although some of the key difficulties associated with nuclear power, most notably the generation of long-lived radioactive wastes that must be managed nearly indefinitely, will be unavoidable.

    A variant to the small LWR engagement strategy, one that is less complex but perhaps, at this point, less attractive to the DPRK, would be to replace steps 3 to 7 of the sequence above with a re-start of the now-defunct KEDOLWR program. In this variant, construction would resume on one or both of the 2 x 1000 MWe Simpo LWRs, and arrangements would be made for the DPRK to sell most or all of the power from Simpo units to the ROK over a purpose-built transmission intertie connecting the Simpo reactors to the ROK grid. The Simpo LWRs would be operated under IAEA safeguards, with fresh fuel imported from international suppliers, and spent fuel removed for storage or disposal outside the DPRK. Capacity-building on nuclear issues for DPRK technicians and officials would still be included, but would be more limited than in the small LWR engagement strategy, reflecting the more limited role that the DPRK will have in managing the nuclear fuel cycle associated with the large LWR(s). If the large LWR path is taken, our own preference would be to build only the first Simpo unit, at least initially, reserving half of the LWR “value” to pay for either the small LWR engagement strategy outlined above, or (preferably) a package of non-nuclear energy sector assistance.

    In this regard, we believe that offering a phased and varied package of energy sector assistance to the DPRK─legal, institutional, and market reforms, energy efficiency, renewable energy, coal sector rehabilitation, transmission and distribution systems and power plant upgrading, and gas distribution, among others, with intense, small, on-the-ground pilot projects in the DPRK bringing outside experts into contact with North Koreans, and capacity-building throughout─is the best way to approach engagement on the inextricably linked DPRK energy sector and nuclear weapons issues.28) Such a program would be an essential enabling condition for the kind of institutional and practical transformation of the DPRK energy sector needed for any major change─especially one as challenging as the idea of creating small light water reactors and deploying them in the DPRK. The task of producing a home-built reactor is a daunting challenge that must be confounding the group of the DPRK’s best-and-brightest that has been tasked with producing the pilot LWR by 2012, given that the laws of material science and physics don’t change because you happen to be in the DPRK. To the (admittedly uncertain) extent that the group tasked with producing a LWR can communicate the difficulties with doing so to those involved in international negotiations, the urgency of the task may increase the probability that engagement on a small LWR program (and related energy sector issues) becomes something North Korean negotiators can say “Yes” to.

    26)Author’s calculations. Key assumptions include a DPRK discount rate of 15%/yr (nominal basis), reactor cost of $2500 per kW, sales of most of the electricity from the reactors to the ROK at a price of 6 US cents per kWh, and the DPRK pays for other costs of running the reactors out of the proceeds of its power sales to the ROK.   27)See, for example, “Mini nuclear reactors, Thinking Small,” The Economist (9 December 2010); and research groups/companies such as Hyperion Power, which offers a (non-LWR) 25 MWe nuclear module unit for $50 million (though it is not immediately clear what other major system components, such as the steam turbine or generator, are included in that cost), with initial deliveries “slated to begin in the second half of 2013.”     28)David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, DPRK Energy Sector Assistance to Accompany Progress in Denuclearization Discussions: Options and Considerations, produced as part of the project “Improving Regional Security and Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula: U.S. Policy Interests and Options.”, organized by Joel Wit of Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute for East Asia and the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C.(2009), and available at

    Ⅶ. Conclusion

    The types of nuclear energy engagement activities described here, whether involving small or large LWRs, would benefit from the support of a regional agreement on nuclear weapons development. A treaty-based nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) in Northeast Asia might be the best option, provided it includes a fuel cycle collaborative activity with related monitoring and verification standards and capacities.29) Using the Latin American precedent, the DPRK might join such a “zone” and its related oversight organization at the outset as a “nuclear armed state” nonetheless reaffirming its intention to become nuclear free; and in turn receiving sovereign guarantees from the Nuclear Weapons States that sign the treaty protocols that the DPRK won’t be attacked with nuclear weapons. These guarantees would be calibrated by the Nuclear Weapons States to the degree to which the DPRK denuclearizes and comes into compliance with their NPT and IAEA obligations, as well as those of the NWFZ Treaty. The precedent is how Argentina and Brazil came into the Latin American Treaty, and along the way created ABACC to manage their mutual suspicions about fuel cycle activity, and then (after 18 years) fully complied with the treaty.

    A NWFZ treaty has the advantage that the same six parties that have been involved in the Six-Party Talks would have to sign on for it to work, so there would be some continuity and each party could play its joining of the Treaty for its own domestic political advantage. The NWFZ concept is also compatible with continued US nuclear extended deterrence, already largely recessed. And, China would likely support the NWFZ concept, Russia too, and the North Koreans still rhetorically advance their version of a nuclear weapon free zone.

    The DPRK has nuclear explosives based on plutonium and a small stockpile of additional plutonium, and will not be giving either up any time soon. They have just revealed a remarkably mature program of uranium enrichment, with a stated goal of fueling to-be-developed domestic LWRs of small size, but raising fears of a second North Korean path to the bomb. Options for the US, the ROK, and their allies boil down to military attack with devastating consequences for the entire Peninsula, reliance on continued international sanctions in the vain and historically contra-indicated hope of DPRK regime implosion, and engagement.

    Only engagement, however unappealing it might seem to some policy makers in Washington and Seoul, is tenable. The DPRK’s desire to produce a home-grown nuclear reactor, likely targeted to be in time for the Kim Il Sung centenary in 2012 (but not likely to be operable then), offers an opportunity to engage the DPRK in the design and implementation of small LWRs. Starting with provision of a small reactor on a barge providing power to a port city, that opportunity could be expanded to include not only reactor design, production, and operation, in joint venture with the ROK and/or others, but also safeguards, oversight of enrichment facilities, regional cooperation on nuclear fuel cycle activities, and DPRK participation, by degrees, in a regional nuclear weapons free zone. All of these activities would proceed in parallel with a comprehensive and varied program of non-nuclear energy sector assistance, and matched on the DPRK side by progressively more meaningful confidencebuilding measures related to their nuclear weapons program.

    29)See Peter Hayes, “The Status Quo Isn’t Working: A Nuke-Free Zone Is Needed Now,” Global Asia (September 2010), available at

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  • [ Table 1. ]  The Structure of the Engagement Strategy with the DPRK’s LWR Program
    The Structure of the Engagement Strategy with the DPRK’s LWR Program
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