Well, well, well. It isn’t just a light water reactor that North Korea is constructing on the decaying Yongbyon site.
The North Koreans also showed Sig Hecker a 2,000 centrifuge enrichment facility in what was the empty Fuel Fabrication Plant at Yongbyon
The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.
American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country.
The location is fascinating. We all thought it would be some secret tunnel under a mountain. Instead, the North Koreans just installed them in plain sight and invited Hecker over for tea.
The choice of location conveniently dates the start of installation to sometime after North Korea tossed inspectors in April 2009. That would be consistent with the timeline suggested by North Korean statements documented by Josh, in his post Parsing North Korean Enrichment. Josh noted the statements on April 14, April 29, June 14 and September 4, culminating in the announcement that “experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase.” Subtle, they ain’t.
I would guess North Korea started installing centrifuges in either June or September. Assuming the North Koreans install one cascade a month, a perfectly plausible pace, that would easily result in about 2,000 centrifuges when Hecker visited. (A nitpick: I am not sure 2,000 centrifuges installed over the course of a year qualifies as either vast or rapid — Sanger engages in some hyperbole to titillate a reader whose eyes might glaze over at “centrifuge” — but twelve cascades is, of course, be plenty big enough for a bomb program. That’s the part of the problem, one doesn’t need a vast centrifuge facility to build a bomb.)
The choice of location also makes plain the North Korean’s point: That building was empty until the Six Party Process collapsed. Draw your own conclusions, Yankee Doodle Dandy.
I despair of convincing whichever Kim we are dealing with this week to abandon North Korea’s enrichment capabilities, though I don’t like any of the other options any better.
This is yet another a perfect example of how AQ Khan helped distort our North Korea policy. Khan asserted — inaccurately, it now appears — that North Korea already had such a facility in 2002. Our political system responded to that possibility as though it were either true, or would be shortly, setting into the motion the events that resulted in the collapse of the Agreed Framework, the farce of the Six Party Talks and, now, North Korea’s construction of the very same enrichment facility whose hypothetical existence started this episode in the sorry saga of US-North Korean relations.
(As a side note, why do so few reporters understand that no one questions whether North Korea was seeking a uranium enrichment capability in 2002, only over the scale of the cheating?)
There are lots of questions about what sort of machines the North Koreans are spinning, how they are performing and so on. That will provide plenty of wonkporn, though the Norks didn’t let Sig take any happy snaps. In the meantime, if you are looking for a nice, comprehensive account of North Korea’s enrichment efforts, I recommend David Albright and Paul Brannan’s, Taking Stock: North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Program. Obviously, they will want to update it, but I think it holds up very well.