North Korean reactor disablement has begun

But, as Assistant U.S. Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher R. Hill said in Tokyo yesterday, disablement means the reactor cannot be up an running again within a year, if things go bad. And, it’s an intermediary step, Hill said — the ultimate goal is complete dismantlement.

In a conversation with journalists at the Okura Hotel, Hill said that “Things seem to be going well. The North Koreans asked if we could do some additional clean-up type issues. So we’re going to look at that — because our interest is, of course, is not just shutting down and disabling, but finally getting rid of this whole Yongbyon complex … We have at least 10 different disabling steps, and one of the first steps will be dealing with the reprocessing facility. And I believe we’re cutting some chains that go to that, cutting some means by which they move radioactive material in the reprocessing center. The second thing — and the thing we need to get going on very quickly — is that the pond where you put the discharged fuel is extremely dirty with a lot of radioactivity. So we need to clean that up. We need to clean it up for health purposes, because we’ll have Americans there and also North Koreans. We don’t want anyone getting radiation sickness. Also, when we get to the point where we take these spent fuel rods and try to send them to some place, we want that place to be willing to accept them. So the cleanup of this pond is going to be important. And this is not a process that’s going to end in a couple of days or a couple of weeks. It’s going to take a lot longer”.

QUESTION: “”So they are going to take out the fuel rods from the reactor?”

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HILL: “Yes, they have to remove the so-called discharging of the fuel. And then a second element: of course, we want to make sure they don’t have some ready availability of new fuel — because that would not be disabling; that would just be recharging. So we have some very specific ideas
for how to make sure there is not an additional amount of fuel. So it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of painstaking work”.

In remarks at a later press conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Hill told reporters that “On disablement, we have agreed on a number of measures. We met in a denuclearization working group in Shenyang; I think it was August 16. And we came up with a list of measures that were designed to make sure that, in shutting down the nuclear facilities, that they couldn’t easily be turned on again. So we negotiated the list with the North Koreans. It was one of these tough negotiations. They wanted us to do less, and we wanted them to do more. But we came up with a list of measures which in their totality, we believe, will make sure that even if on a certain day the North Koreans wanted to restart the plutonium — which, by the way, would be a very bad day for all of us — that it would take them well over a year to do that. So we have a concept that disabling should be something that, in order to reverse the disabling, you would need more than a year.

“So the disabling involves measures, very technical measures, in the three parts of the Yongbyon complex. First, the fuel fabrication facility. Second, the actual 5-megawatt reactor. Thirdly, the reprocessing facility, where the spent fuel rods would be taken from the 5-megawatt reactor. So these are technical measures that we will work with North Korean engineers on.

“One of the first that needs to be done is, we need to do some cleanup of the pond where the discharged fuel from the reactor needs to go — because eventually we want the discharged fuel to be canned and sent out of North Korea. And so, in order to do that, we’re going to have to clean the pond up. So that’s one of the things that’s going to get done in the next couple of days — or started to get done, because discharging fuel will take many weeks. We also, I think, will begin with some measures that are fairly easy to accomplish in the reprocessing facility. And we will continue from there … Altogether, I think the process is going to take a full two months. And even at the end of December, when we will have substantial disabling, we need to be careful not to hurry things in a way that could cause any health risk to anyone working on the process. So we’ll have to be careful on that.

“But, I think, by the end of all this you’ll see that we have a Yongbyon that is disabled and ready for the next stage, which is to be dismantled”.

Experts arrive in Yongbyon Sunday

… and the disabling of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yongbyon is due to start Monday, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is the American point man on the matter.

The Agence France Press reported Saturday that a nine-member team of U.S. experts will at least observe at least the start of the process, which is expected to take until the end of the year.

AFP said that “North Korea, which tested an atomic weapon in October 2006, has agreed to start disabling its plutonium-producing plants under a six-nation accord which also requires it to declare all nuclear programmes”. And, the AFP report noted, Hill said that “The idea of disablement is to create a situation where it is very difficult to bring those facilities back on line and certainly a very expensive and difficult prospect of ever bringing them back on line.”

This is key to an accord negotiated last February in Six-Party talks (North and South Korea, China, U.S., Japan and Russia) by which humanitarian and fuel aid will begin to flow to the DPRK. A lengthy delay was caused by difficulties in untangling U.S. financial sanctions imposed on North Korea, suspected of money laundering and producing counterfeit U.S. dollar bills.

The AFP added that “If the North goes on next year to dismantle the plants and give up its plutonium and weapons, it can expect normalised relations with Washington and a peace pact to replace the armistice which ended the 1950-1953 Korean War. North Korea also wants to be taken off a US list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Hill said Pyongyang would first have to satisfy Washington that it was not engaged in any terrorism-related activities. ‘They (North Korea) have to address the terrorism concerns that put them on the list in the first place’, said Hill”.

Apparently, Hill clarified at a news conference with journalists in Tokyo on Saturday, there has been a pledge of non-prolifieration from North Korea — but that is not enough: it must now also detail any past proliferation activities, including reported assistance to Syria in building a nuclear reactor that was reportedly “disabled” before going on-line by an Israeli airstrike on 6 September that the U.S. at least knew about in advance, if it did not actively assist.

The AFP wrote that Hill said “We have received assurances that they will not transfer (nuclear technology). On the other hand we have to be vigilant about this and we have to be really continuing to watch closely areas of concern, areas of the world where we have our concerns, including in Syria.” The AFP report can be found here.
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