Catherine DillSomething Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…Yellow?

This is a guest post from my colleague Margaret Croy.

Dual Use in the DPRK: Uranium Extraction from Phosphate Fertilizer Factories

Last June, while going through Google Earth and trying to geolocate some of the facilities linked to North Korea’s nuclear fuel cycle, I bumped into some of my old research on nuclear safeguards challenges in Syria, and a small, intracranial lightbulb began to flicker. Ten months later, the lightbulb is fully aglow, and I’m delighted to say that my research on a relatively uncommon method of yellowcake uranium production and its applicability to the DPRK has been published as a CNS Occasional Paper entitled: Dual Use in the DPRK: Uranium Extraction from Phosphate Fertilizer Factories.

To back up a bit: in June 2008, during IAEA inspections in Syria resulting from unresolved safeguards questions that arose from the September 2007 destruction (Israeli bombing) of an alleged reactor (“Al Kibar”) near Deir al-Zour, a few particles of anthropogenic uranium were found in a Chinese supplied miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR) on the outskirts of Damascus. Those particles were later determined to have come from a small, pilot-scale uranium extraction facility at the Homs Fertilizer Plant. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Syria had asked the IAEA and the UNDP for assistance in constructing such a plant, and in 1996, assistance was granted. The plant came online in 1999 and began small scale production.

I had learned the above during the course of my research on safeguards challenges in Syria, but an incredible paper written by Robert Kelley and Vitaly Fedchenko, and published by the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium as “Phosphate Fertilizers as a Proliferation-Relevant Source of Uranium” provided a much needed refresher, and introduced me to many other historical instances of uranium extraction from phosphoric acid in phosphate fertilizer plants. My favorite example? Between 1985 and 1991, Iraq produced 168 metric tons of yellowcake uranium with this process. The resulting yellowcake formed the bulk of the material used in Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program until its dismantling in 1991.

Armed with Kelley and Fedchenko’s fantastic compilation of historical case studies, I realized that no mention of the possibility of this process taking place in North Korea had been made, either in their publication, or in…any other one I could find. What I did find a lot of, however, were DPRK state media reports talking about the importance of the phosphatic fertilizer industry, speeches made by Kim Jong Un talking about the importance of the phosphatic fertilizer industry, and…you guessed it…a new factory for producing phosphate fertilizer in Sunch’on, which was getting a lot of press in the DPRK.

The existence of numerous historical case studies, in combination with extensive research into fertilizer factories in North Korea, proved to me that such an activity is possible in North Korea given its technical capabilities and infrastructure. The technical information on how to conduct this type of uranium extraction is available in documents produced by Idaho National Laboratory and the IAEA, which are public and freely accessible on the internet. The extensive DPRK state media coverage of the domestic phosphate fertilizer industry demonstrated to me that North Korean leadership has a strong interest in the production of phosphate fertilizers. While the motivation to ramp up the production of these fertilizers could be entirely benign (the DPRK does desperately need better fertilizers, as it has a massive crop shortage), it could also have the secondary purpose or uranium production, which is in line with Kim Jong Un’s concept of byungjin as well as his stated national prioritization of a credible nuclear deterrent. Circumstantial evidence is not concrete proof, by any stretch, but my goal in publishing the paper was to put forth the possibility that there may be another means by which North Korea is acquiring material for its nuclear program, and to challenge other DPRK wonks to consider this tried and true method as a possibility in North Korea. Read on, and let me know what you think!


  1. oliver (History)

    Please check YOUR Figure 1 with that flow scheme.
    It seems the arrows “barren solvent” and “pregnant solvent” everywhere are reversed in comprison to the Figure A-1 in that DOE INL paper?
    Cheers, Oliver