Jeffrey LewisAlbright on Disablement

_The paper is now available
at the USIP wesbite._

Most readers inside the Beltway already know that David Albright and Paul Brannan have written a report for USIP entitled Disabling DPRK Nuclear Facilities.

USIP still hasn’t put it on the website — which is weird, because everyone I know already has a copy.

Still, since John Park is a buddy, I am just going to give you a teaser. Here are the disablement options — there are a couple that didn’t make it into my post in early September:

Temporary disablement options that have been considered include:

  • Destroying or otherwise rendering inoperative the mechanisms that permit the neutron-absorbing control rods to be pulled from the reactor, a step necessary to restart the reactor. The control rods could also be removed from the reactor and stored, destroyed, or moved out of the country.
  • The reactor is cooled by blowing carbon dioxide into the reactor core. To stop the ability of the DPRK to cool the reactor, the gas blowers could be removed and destroyed, preventing the primary cooling of the reactor.
  • The heat in the carbon dioxide gas is transferred to a secondary cooling circuit that uses water. The heat transfer equipment could be disabled or destroyed, making it impossible for the excess heat to be extracted from the reactor core. Another option is to demolish the single cooling tower near the reactor.
  • Prevent new fuel from being loaded into the reactor by removing and rendering inoperative the fuel rod handling machine.
  • A neutron-absorbing material, such as cadmium or gadolinium, could be dispersed in powder form in the fuel and control rod channels.
  • Concrete or epoxy resin with hard bits could be poured into the fuel channels. The additives would make the repair more time consuming.
  • Salty water could be poured in all the control panels of the reactor.
  • The reactor core is shielded on top and on its side by several meters of concrete. This concrete shell could be partially destroyed, making it unsafe to restart the reactor without repairs.
  • Cut off all instrumentation flush with the surface of the biological shield of the reactor.

All of these temporary disablement options could be implemented within a few months. These options pose little risk of radiation release and are straightforward to plan and implement. After disablement, inspectors could easily observe the continuity of disablement, particularly with the options of removing the control rods, cutting or removing portions of the secondary cooling circuit (or destroying the cooling tower), or removing the gas blowers.

I will link to it when USIP puts the whole thing up.


  1. thermopile (History)

    There’s the added requirement of making it safe, though, which many of the above options don’t address. IMHO, disablement activities need to make the reactor safe in addition to preventing operators from using it.

    For instance, suppose an earthquake hits the Pyongyang region. The control rods (or other poison) need to stay in the core to prevent it from going critical. Destroying the mechanisms may allow the control rods to jump up & out, causing an unintended criticality during an earthquake.

    As another example, removing secondary cooling systems is neither necessary nor sufficient. Not allowing the reactor to properly reject heat would prevent any sane person from operating it, but it arguably makes the reactor less safe. If it goes critical under the watchful eye of some mad scientist, the reactor will overheat and degrade. As Egon said in Ghostbusters, “That would be bad.”

    In any event, disablement activities should prevent the reactor from going critical; disabling secondary heat-transfer mechanisms doesn’t make the system any more safe. Dispersing cadmium, gadolinium, boron, or hafnium and welding the control rods in place would do the trick.

  2. Gridlock (History)

    I thought disablement (!) was some sort of scientific method for disabling an advanced piece of nuclear kit, and here’s Madame Albright recommending <i>pouring salty water on the control panels</i>??

  3. Lao Tao Ren

    Suppose you are to take the position of the DPRK nuclear team, who has every intention of making the reactor as easy and fast to restart as possible, what would you agree to on that list that would give the appearance of ‘disablement’ or to minimally qualify for having achieved that term?

    Well, if DPRK takes the legal definition of disablement, that means ‘to disqualify’, and that could be achieved by: e.g. removing a few gauges so that the reactor is no longer qualified for safe operation!

    Or, they can take the other definition: “to make unable or unfit; weaken or destroy the capability of; cripple”.

    From this definition, the least onerous term: weakening the capability, e.g. removing its fuel rods, would qualify.

    Why is it I get this feeling that is what DPRK is going to insist that they really agreed to?

    On the same subject, I did not see a public document that specifies the delivery schedule for fuel oil promised to them except for the first shipment.

    Is that another ‘wiggle out’?

  4. Haninah (History)

    Sounds like a rundown of Homer Simpson’s greatest hits as supervising technician of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

  5. R.

    If you’re going for cost- effectiveness, it’d have to be the salty water in the electrical equipment.

  6. Allen Thomson

    > Dispersing cadmium, gadolinium, boron, or hafnium and welding the control rods in place would do the trick.

    Hmm. I wonder if the thermite reaction works with the oxide of any of those elements.

  7. sobaka (History)

    A lesson from Iraq might be of help here. UNSCOM ‘destroyed” the solid propellant casting chamber used to produce the proscribed BADR 200 missile by cutting a section of metal from chamber-to-lid interface. No sane engineer would attempt to patch the section and later achieve a seal good enough to hold a vacuum. Upon UNMOVIC’s return in 2002, it was found that Iraq had done the insane; they were able to cast and cure al Fat’h motors in the chamber. Seal wasn’t perfect, but it was sufficient for their purposes.

    Clearly, creative, non-Western solutions to an engineering obstacle are possible and probable.

  8. yale (History)

    I am a bit confused by this “disablement” tactic:

    … The control rods could also be removed from the reactor and stored, destroyed, or moved out of the country.

    Yes, this would disable the reactor, but it could also “disable” significant portions of Asia.

    I think you would be much better off doing as I suggested in the September post:

    Welding control rods in place is also a good idea.

    The result of removing the control rods from a small reactor (without packing the channels with some other neutron stopping material) will be a massive power excursion.

  9. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Couldn’t a “large, round, reinforced concrete cylinder” be some kind of
    long range missile silo?

    Moving the Shihab missiles to Syria would significantly cut the distance
    to London. This would explain the hurry to build an anti-missile defence
    system in western Europe and Syria’s haste to eliminate the evidence.
    Syria is probably caught between the bear hug of Iran and the need to
    maintain good relations with Europe. The US will probably want to hide
    it got scared of some regional power it is trying to intimidate and will
    seize on the Israeli tendency to see nuclear programs everywhere. I guess
    the Israeli experts saw much less ICBM sites than their US counterparts.

    By the way, if your missiles still require cryogenics you will probably
    need lots of cooling water.

    This is a kind of conspiracy theory, too many bits suddenly click into
    place so it should be viewed with suspicion but try to give it a fair trial.

    SANA and Asad tries hard not to lie and maybe they are not, except on
    the exact location of the bombed site.

    And maybe the NK ship was really carrying cement after all…