A Chernobyl in the making


    A nuclear catastrophe looms from Yongbyon, North Korea, which could threaten to annihilate thousands of people and make some parts of North Korea, Russia and China uninhabitable for decades to come.

    Satellite image of North Korea’s light water nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES

    That deadly scenario also poses health risks to thousands, if not millions, of people living in South Korea and other parts of Southeast and East Asia.

    In the maze of taunts and counter-taunts, of childish rhetorics between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the prospect of an accidental war, a grim possibility of a nuclear holocaust could emerge to engulf some parts of the region, which could rival or even turn out worse than Japan’s Fukushima and Russia’s Chernobyl accidents.

    Sometime in 2009, North Korea announced matter-of-factly plans to build a light water nuclear reactor. The United States and its allies must have considered the North’s nuclear reactor plant as innocuous and did not pose an imminent danger to the region, much less to America.

    And so, the US, South Korea and Japan did not take North Korea’s announcement of a plan to build a nuclear reactor plant seriously enough to merit their attention, much less action.

    It could also be that the US and its allies were so distracted by the firing of a series of ballistic missiles by Kim Jong-un that they entirely dropped the ball on the water nuclear reactor being built by the North.

    Up until recently, the West and its allies also belittled North Korea’s nuclear capability and figured wrongly that the hermit kingdom was years away before it could be a real nuclear threat.

    To their horror and disbelief, North Korea began testing a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which could reportedly reach some major cities in the US mainland. The US belatedly admitted that it had underestimated North Korea’s nuclear capability. Upping the ante, the North Korean leader even threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific to send the US, South Korea, Japan and the rest of the region into a tailspin.

    Light at the end of the tunnel?

    Thus far, all diplomatic efforts to dissuade the North from building a nuclear arsenal have failed. From all indications, Kim Jong-un is not likely to abandon his nuclear program but will continue to use that as leverage against what he believes is an existential threat to his country from the US and its allies. Kim equates the US presence in South Korea and the US-South Korean military joint exercises as a prelude to the US-led push for a regime change in the hermit kingdom.

    Some weeks ago, Trump sanctioned 27 entities and 28 vessels to further isolate North Korea economically. If those new sanctions fail, a second, more severe punishment will be forthcoming, he warned.

    However, in a totally unexpected development, Trump announced last week that he was accepting the invitation from Kim Jong-un for a face-to-face meeting “by May,” sending the White House staffers scrambling.

    The US President’s acquiescence to such meeting drew mixed reactions from home and elsewhere around the globe. It is to the credit of South Korea’s patience and diplomatic skills that helped pave the way for this latest development.

    Much earlier, South Korea and the North have seemingly found an avenue to bring down the level of political temperature and try to tame the beast of war via the recently concluded winter Olympics. North and South Korean athletes have found a common cause to participate in the Olympics as “one” country, “one” people.

    Despite warnings from some political quarters, we should welcome this development and encourage both leaders of the North and South to pursue the peace talks with the aim in view of convincing Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear programs altogether, including the dismantling of the light water nuclear reactor. |

    Past and present negotiations with North Korea have excluded the North’s nuclear reactor. There are compelling and urgent reasons why the horrifying nuclear reactor should be part of the package in any meaningful peace negotiations.

    NKorea builds light water nuclear reactor

    Documents obtained recently by The Manila Times from a highly reliable intelligence source, who is an expert in Southeast Asian affairs, show that North Korea was making good on its boast. It is, indeed, constructing a light water reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, an aerial photo shows.

    Yongbyon is situated near the border of China and Russia. It is 90 kilometers from Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, 150 kms from Dandong City, Liaoning province of China and only 500 kms from the nearest Russian town of Khasan.

    At first glance, nothing seems wrong with building a light water reactor. But “components for a nuclear light water reactor must withstand great pressure and high temperature. Only a few factories in the world are capable of producing such components, owing to the highly exacting metal purity requirements, advanced welding techniques, heat treatment processes, and quality control regimes needed to meet incredibly stringent safety standards,” the paper said.

    “Because of this extreme level of care, catastrophic failure of components, such as reactor vessel and steam generators, are not even factored into standard safety analysis studies for light water reactors in most of the world, nor are containment systems engineered to survive the failure of such components, because their quality is understood to meet the highest engineering standards and their reliability is taken as a given,” it added.

    “By contrast, North Korea does not subscribe to international norms and standards and is assembling the major components for its light water reactor in open sheds in a pasture adjacent to its proposed reactor site,” the paper noted.

    Russia against nuclear neighbor

    In an interview over the weekend, Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor A. Khovaev told The Manila Times that, “It is not in the interest of Russia to have a nuclear neighbor.”

    He said he is neither a technical expert nor an intelligence officer, when asked for his comment on the integrity of North Korea’s nuclear reactor.

    “It is beyond my competence to pass judgment on North Korea’s technical competence, it is the job of the International Atomic Energy Commission based in Vienna to verify.”

    The IAEC is the agency responsible for keeping all nuclear programs under strict control, he pointed out.
    The ambassador added that Russia is worried about anything that is not verifiable. “We have a saying in Russia that says, “Trust and verify.”

    All nuclear programs should be used only for peaceful purposes and Russia is totally committed to nuclear non-proliferation, he said, adding, the international treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear arms must be respected.

    He vehemently denied that Russia was supplying North Korea with components or parts for its nuclear reactor. He has no knowledge which country or countries they are coming from, he said.

    “There’s no room for allegations. We have not supplied parts for nuclear reactors to North Korea. Neither do we transfer nuclear technology and technical assistance, or export our scientists and engineers to any country,” the ambassador stressed.

    “There are many countries that could be the source of the North’s nuclear components and that it is likely that the parts are being smuggled into North Korea.”

    He also stressed that, “we are against having a nuclear neighbor. Russia might be affected. We are worried. It is stupid to say that Russia is supplying North Korea with parts or components for its nuclear reactor. North Korea knows our legitimate concerns.”

    “Many countries can now build nuclear reactors. It is just a question of political will and economic costs. We are fully committed to non-proliferation of nuclear arms,” he emphasized.

    Countries at risk

    South Korea, China and Russia share a common border with North Korea. They are the three countries highly at risk should a nuclear accident or meltdown happen at Yongbyon nuclear complex. Yongbyon is just 60 miles north of Pyongyang; 164 miles from Lianing, Danding, China; 175 miles from Seoul, South Korea and 313 miles miles from Khasan, Russia. (Source: distancefromto.net)

    In danger of getting exposed to nuclear fallout in the event of an accident in Yongbyon nuclear complex are some 2.454 million people living in and around Yongbyon; 3.222 million in Pyongyang, North Korea; 43.907 million in Liaoning, China; 51.101 million in South Korea; 604,600 in Vladivostok, Russia; 5.510 million in Kitakyushu, Japan, not to mention the 47,000 and the 31,600 US military personnel stationed in Japan and South Korea, respectively.

    Fukushima, Chernobyl accidents

    We remember the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear accidents in Japan and Ukraine, on March 11 and April 26, respectively. In both accidents, thousands of people were evacuated to safety, miles away from their radiation filled homes.

    In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, some 116,000 residents surrounding the reactor were uprooted and a further 220,000 from Belarus and Ukraine were evacuated the following year. Reportedly, “the evacuees were exposed externally, and to a lesser degree, internally to radiation from the damaged reactor from radionuclides released to the environment.” (Source: UNSCEAR)

    In both accidents, Japan and Russia had spent billions of dollars in evacuating the residents in and around the reactor, and in cleaning the swathe of contaminated land that was exposed to radiation, not to mention the medical care the governments of Russia and Japan continue to spend for the victims of the nuclear fallout.

    Russia had reportedly spent some $235 billion to clean the nuclear contaminated area, and that there is a continuing danger within the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the plant and that it will not be safe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years, according to the UNDP report.

    Can North Korea afford that kind of money in the event of a nuclear meltdown in Yongbyon?

    Phone calls made and emails sent by The Times to North Korean officials, including an invitation sent through the North Korean embassy in Malaysia, have been left unanswered.

    Recent reports have it that a “radiation cloud” of ruthenium-106 has been detected over some parts of Europe that could come from a possible nuclear accident leak in Russia or other former Soviet states. This report, while unconfirmed, should be instructive.

    If Russia, an advanced and highly experienced in matters of nuclear energy could suffer a catastrophe like Chernobyl, “what is the potential for similar or greater damage caused by North Korea’s reactor? Natural disasters, design flaws, manufacturing defects, and human errors are all very real, frightening possibilities for an isolated state bent on forcing the world to accept its sanctioned nuclear program,” the intelligence paper asks.

    Oh, yes, there is no escaping following a nuclear disaster at Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea.

    Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines will surely be at risk through airborne fallout, contaminated soil, crops and fisheries.

    There are reports of frequent evacuations of school children and residents living close to the border of North Korea and China owing to the tremors caused by the North’s nuclear tests.

    North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions take precedence over the safety of his own people and the rest of the world. He does not concern himself with even the “basic industrial safety standard, much less the precision required for the construction of a water nuclear reactor.

    Fallout and run-off from such a catastrophe, or an accident or substandard procedures in its weapons testing or storage facilities, such as the recent collapses and landslides at the Punggye-ri test site in Kilju province, could easily contaminate the border regions of China and Russia, as well as fisheries that the entire region relies on for sustenance,” the report said.

    Four North Korean defectors from Kilju reportedly showed some physical symptoms that could be related to radiation exposure, a report from South Korea said.

    Pray that the forthcoming denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea succeed. Failure is not an option. There is no escape in the event of a nuclear accident. You can run but you can’t hide, as the old adage goes.

    Related News:

    38 North, a program of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, published on its website on Feb 19 this year a report headlined, Progress at North Korea’s Experimental Light Water Reactor at Yongbyon.

    It said “commercial satellite imagery from 2017 through February 11, 2018 indicates steady progress has been made toward the operationalization of the (100 MWth/30 MWe[1]) Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Having been under construction since 2010, the ELWR seems to be nearing operational status based on improvements made over the past year, including new provisions for a more consistent cooling water supply, installation of internal equipment and the connection of the reactor to the local electrical grid. The latest imagery from February 11 shows the ELWR is externally complete, while the two adjacent construction support yards now appear relatively quiet as opposed to mid-2017 when equipment was actively being transferred from the yards into the reactor dome.[2] The overall site remains clean and well maintained with roads and paths cleared of recent (post-January 30, 2018) snowfall.”


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