North Korea is constructing an experimental light-water reactor (LWR) capable of generating 25 to 30 megawatts of electricity, according to Stanford University’s Siegfried Hecker on Saturday. After a North Korea trip, Hecker told reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang informed him in March of its plans to build a LWR power plant that uses its own nuclear fuel. In September, David Albright with the Institute for Science and International Security disclosed satellite images of construction work underway in the Yongbyon complex where the North’s cooling tower was demolished in 2008 as a symbolic gesture to denuclearize. David Albright has not yet disclosed conclusions to his findings, but one Washington nuclear expert initially suspected that North Korea could be building a cooling facility to provide the same function of a cooling tower needed to produce nuclear weapons.
It is too early to sound alarm bells or to be overly concerned. Still, if the North is in fact building a LWR, then some initial thoughts that come to mind are that Pyongyang again has a domestic and international agenda. It appears to be a sign that the North will continue to pursue uranium enrichment even though it will take years to complete the reactor and will have difficulty receiving outside help for its construction due to a series of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions and export bans. The only way to receive outside help is to smuggle in reactor parts, centrifuges and other technology under the radar of export controls. In realistic terms, the envisioned reactor can only be small in size. Even China is unable to safely build large reactors on its own.
The move also seems to be a part of the “mighty and powerful nation by 2012” equation and to prepare for a leadership succession. The LWR construction could also have an element of eliciting negotiations from the U.S. despite an apparent decision to rely on big brother China for life support. And then of course, it could be a show to grab international attention.