Jeffrey LewisHecker on Disablement

Wow, somehow I totally missed that Sig Hecker published the North Korean disablement steps in his last trip report from North Korea :

The following constitute the 12 disablement actions as defined by Yongbyon officials:

Fuel Fabrication Facility

1) Removal and storage of all three uranium ore concentrate dissolver tanks.
2) Removal and storage of all seven uranium conversion furnaces, including storage of refractory bricks and mortar sand.
3) Removal and storage of both metal casting furnaces and vacuum system, and removal and storage of eight machining lathes.
4) Storage of the remaining UO3 powder in bags with monitoring by IAEA (this constitutes nearly five tons of powder).

5 MWe reactor

5) Cut and removal of portions of steel piping of the secondary cooling loop outside the reactor building.
6) Removal of the wood interior structure of the cooling tower.
7) Discharge of 8000 spent fuel rods.
8) Removal and storage of the control rod drive mechanisms.

Reprocessing Facility

9) Cut cable and removal of drive mechanism for trolley that moves spent fuel caskets from the fuel receiving building into the reprocessing facility.
10) Cut two of the four steam lines into the reprocessing facility.
11) Removal of the crane and door actuators that permit spent fuel rods to enter the reprocessing facility (at Level -1).
12) Removal of the drive mechanisms for the fuel cladding shearing and slitting machines (at Level -1).

The operational definition of “disablement” is to make it more difficult, but not impossible, to restart the nuclear facilities. As of Feb. 14, 10 of the 12 disablement actions identified by the DPRK had been completed. The discharge of the reactor fuel rods from the 5 MWe reactor (#7) was intentionally slowed down by the DPRK. The removal of the control rod drive mechanisms (#8) will be completed once all fuel rods are discharged.

That more or less squares with what I’ve been heard. (The State Department, by the way, has been showing pictures of steps 3, 5, 6, 9, and 11.)

Really good stuff.


  1. Gridlock (History)

    Are we agreed that disablement is a word now then?

    Maybe W will have a legacy after all..

  2. Rwendland (History)

    I see sensible and pragmatic Hecker is keen for the existing Magnox spent fuel to be reprocessing in situ at Yongbyon: “I also strongly urge reconsideration of the decision to ship the current load of spent fuel out of the DPRK. Technically, it is much more advisable to allow one more reprocessing campaign under IAEA supervision and ship out 12 kg of plutonium rather than 50,000 kg of highly radioactive spent fuel that will have to be processed somewhere.”

    Good man. I hope the politicians accept his advice. This idea was floated on ArmsControlWonk back in January.

    NB Hecker has some interesting photos available. I love the one of UO3 stored in what looks like old chicken-feed sacks!

  3. Jim (History)

    Jeffrey – is there a web link for the State Department’s photos of the disablement?

  4. Joe Cirincione

    Great post. Very helpful. Here’s my two bits:

    1. We should be cautious about jumping to conclusions off intelligence that we have not examined.

    2. However, if the pictures (I, too, understand they are stills, not video) show a reactor vessel, this is damning.

    3. Syria would have violated its safeguard agreement with IAEA that requires it to disclose any and all nuclear-related facilities under construction.

    4. No evidence that this was weapons related. Even if it was a reactor, not evidence of the capabilities to use the reactor to make material for a nuclear bomb.

    5. If there is not evidence of a weapons program, it is not clear that the DPRK was in violation of its NPT treaty requirement not to aid another countries weapons program. This could be their version of the US-India deal, which US officials claims does not technically aid a weapons program. (I haven’t yet looked at bilateral agreements it might violate.)

    6. None of the above justifies an Israeli strike. The current uncertainty demonstrates the failure of this approach. Syria may well claim the photos are forgeries, like the phony Niger uranium documents, and with the facility destroyed, how do we prove it? Israel and the US should have presented the evidence to the IAEA, brought in inspectors and shut the facility down. In the worst case, Israel could have retained the military option. This was not an imminent threat to any nation at the time of the strike.

    7. BIG POINT: All this is a sideshow to the main event: the shut down of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons program and their existing plutonium production reactor. We should not let a fledgling nuclear program distract us when we are so close to ending a major international security threat that has vexed us for 25 years. US technicians are in country today disabling the reactor and are negotiating its complete dismantlement. We are in the process of verifying the plutonium stocks and arranging for their disposal.

    8. My view of why US is releasing this material now: It is to clear the decks in preparation for the next steps with DPRK. Opponents of the agreement want to use the Syria issue to kill the deal. Administration officials know that they know about the photographic evidence. They want to release it now to control the damage, end threats to cut funds for implementing the DPRK deal, and allow the storm to blow over before US decisions to take DPRK off the terrorist list are announced. See how US officials in stories emphasize that this is past activity. They will argue the deal will end such NK assistance to states.

    That’s my take in a nutshell.

  5. Arch Roberts (History)


    In general, I agree with your views, although you may not be surprised that I am more hawkish than you. On your point #5, you should mention that the DPRK, as official policy, does not believe it is any longer nound by its NPT commitments: rather, there is a dispute over whether 90 exact days had transpired between their announced withdrawal from the traty or not. The IAEA believes and has argued strenuously that they didn’t meet the deadline. The DPRK argues the contrary. So who is right, and what does this mean for the only legal IAEA response, which is referral to the Security Council? Best regards to you, by the way…