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North Korean Nuclear Facilities Dangerous, Primitive, But Still Produce Weapons

By | October 29, 2007

      North Korean nuclear facilities are dangerous, primitive and expose humans to radiation, but they still pose a threat in empowering the isolated nation to produce nuclear weapons, according to a paper from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

      Crumbling concrete, broken windows and a forlorn and lonely atmosphere hang over the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, according to Jon B. Wolfsthal, senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program, in a paper released this month giving his own views.

      He toured North Korean nuke facilities, and related his impressions of what nuclear disarmament teams will find when they arrive at Yongbyon to see whether North Korea keeps its promise to disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year.

      This will be just the beginning of trying to defang the nuclear North, with much more work to come later, Wolfsthal predicted.

      At Yongbyon, he stated, as a Department of Energy employee he found "a collection of crumbling cement structures with inadequate heat and power. The water and electricity work only sporadically. There are no lasers or modern computer complexes with flashing lights; the site is frozen in the 1950s and more closely resembles a junk yard than an evil regime’s nuclear nerve center."

      He described the five megawatt nuclear reactor as cobbled together in a makeshift manner.

      "Built in the 1980s, the plant is capable of producing up to one bomb’s worth of plutonium every year," the paper stated. "The U.S. team will find antiquated computer control equipment scavenged from the international market and cobbled together from so many spare parts. Rusting parts and broken windows dominate the outside view. While safe to visit for short periods, the levels of radiation on the site would force its closure in any state in America. U.S. experts will have to wear nuclear detection equipment, known as dosimeters, at all times for their safety."

      There are many tasks facing any denuclearization team sent to the remote area, he wrote.

      For example, U.S. teams "also have to de-activate the fuel reprocessing center where North Korea extracted plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for its nuclear weapons, as well as the fresh fuel production site," he noted.

      This could involve some unnerving unknowns.

      "The condition of the reprocessing facility is not well known," according to the report. "However, reprocessing spent fuel is among the most radioactive activities there is and levels of radiation are likely to be very high. Only short periods of exposure will be permitted by the U.S. or Korean health physicists tasked with ensuring the health of those working in radioactive environments."

      This work clearly will pose a danger to those who must perform it.

      "Locking down the fuel fabrication site may be the easiest task due to its poor condition, but will pose some of the greatest health challenges," Wolfsthal explained. "It is likely that the damage to the site, as well as the standards of safety at the plant, has led to the dispersal of uranium at the site making day to day work difficult and dangerous."

      To counter the radioactivity threat, the disarmament teams will endure personal discomfort.

      "In all three sites, [U.S.] personnel will have to wear protective clothes, including overalls, masks, surgeon hats, and gloves," he wrote. "Dressing and undressing and being checked for radiation at every entry will take time and will get frustrating very quickly.

      "Just ensuring there are enough sets of protective wear is a major logistics exercise, as most of the equipment needed by the American teams will have to be flown in from outside of the country. There are no Home Depots in North Korea. Ensuring they have the reliable electricity and heat, as well as necessary equipment to carry out their jobs, will take months to arrange and endless hours of haggling with North Korean engineers who will not be enthusiastic about helping the U.S. take apart the nuclear complex they spent their lives building. Even getting basic tools to complete their work will be a challenge."

      As if that challenge during each workday weren’t bad enough, there won’t be any joy in off hours, either.?"Aside from the work at hand, the teams will have to face some of the most isolating and demoralizing work conditions anywhere," Wolfsthal wrote.

      "U.S. teams will literally be behind enemy lines, as the United States and North Korea remain technically in a state of war with each other. U.S. teams will sleep at a guest house guarded by AK-47-toting guards (for their own protection, they will be told). Driven over dirt roads, each morning and evening they will pass through no less than four police and army check points, manned with machine gun nests and humorless North Korean officers."

      Then there is the bitter environment in North Korea.

      "This winter the temperature will reach 20 degrees below zero every night," the paper noted. "Staying warm will be among the first of the challenges the technical teams face. Not losing their minds to boredom will be another. No outside T.V. or communication is possible, as North Korea will likely ban the use of satellite phones for communication with the outside world. Perhaps some of the hundreds of paper back books left by the U.S. government teams who worked there in the 1990s are still on site, but forms of entertainment for their resting hours will be few and far between."

      So the disarmament teams, in attempting to head off a nuclear nightmare, will face a punishing, draining experience.

      "Only by concentrating on and remembering the importance of the difficult tasks at hand will they be able to maintain their morale and confidence," he predicted. "Any success they achieve will aid the process of disarmament on the Korean peninsula, but their time in country will likely go unnoticed and unappreciated by most. A shame, for their work could not be more important and deserves thanks."

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