Jeffrey LewisPyongsan and Sillamäe

I am delighted that my article on the modernization of the uranium mill at Pyongsan is getting so much attention.

I do, however, have to register a small reservation — partly about the  coverage but mostly about my own role in it.  I study nuclear weapons, so I am first and foremost interested in what the operation of the uranium mill means for North Korea’s nuclear programs.  It is natural that I would focus on the possibility that the modernization of the mill means more North Korean nuclear weapons, which is a definitely a bad thing.

But it is also a speculative thing — North Korea might someday use those nuclear weapons to kill people or it might maim or kill people in conventional provocations that it would not have undertaken with a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.

What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm.  That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community.  I often complain that nuclear nonproliferation doesn’t get enough attention, but like any security issue nuclear war gets loads more attention than “small” harms like environmental pollution and human health.

Of course, those aren’t small harms to the people who are being poisoned. Nor is this harm speculative. Over time, small or not, these harms accumulate. One of the problems in public policy, as I see it, is that we give short shrift to small harms but very real harms.

I did include a paragraph about the environmental harm posed by the mill, one that highlighted the clean-up effort at Sillamäe in Estonia. My friend Cheryl Rofer worked on the Sillamäe site remediation. I can heartily recommend the book she edited with Tönis Kaasik, Turning a Problem into a Resource: Remediation and Waste Management at the Sillamäe Site, Estonia (Springer, 2000).

But my mention of environmental issues was only a few words.  I am sure those people working on these really, really important issues will feel slighted. Well, before they have a chance to feel that way, I wanted to an issue an open invitation for suggestions about how I might do better next time.  As I am writing this, I’ve thought of a number of things I might have done differently. I am ready to hear more.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Well, Jeffrey, it’s incontrovertible that you found the sites, which is the big news of the 38 North post. And it’s great to see the Volunteer Verification Corps in action.

    There’s an intersection between environmental remediation and nonproliferation. One of the tools I used in planning cleanups was overhead photography to identify the location and extent of sites. One of the people on my team, back in the 1990s, may have been the first to develop an algorithm for changing the angle of view. Now it’s standard on Google Earth and elsewhere.

    Site sampling is another big area of overlap. I keep thinking about the Parchin sampling plan.

    But on Jeffrey’s concern about slighting the environmental aspects: I think the 38 North article is fine as it stands. The point is that two possible uranium mines have been located. I would keep that separate from the environmental issues for the purpose of blog posts or short articles.

    Mining is messy, and the environmental aspects have been slighted for a long time. The Animas River in Colorado just got a shot of contaminated water from century-old gold mines that were developed with no thought to environmental protection. Not surprising that North Korea is pouring tailings into an unlined pond.

    Mine tailings are brought up from a place in the earth where they were reasonably stable and crushed to a fine powder, then treated with chemicals to extract the desired metals. All that mobilizes other metals in the tailings. So yes, it’s likely that the crops being grown near that tailings pond in Pyongsan contain components that will damage the health of the people eating them. Or the pond could overflow and mess things up downstream. Coal tailings ponds regularly overflow in the United States.

    Even today, it’s hard to get environmental projects funded. Remediating mines is difficult and expensive. Mining companies have cleaned up their act to some degree over the past decade or two, but I have not yet seen convincing reports on what they are doing. The fact is that mining deals with large volumes of chemically active and potentially harmful stuff.

    But it can be done. Under the direction of Tõnis Kaasik and the staff at AS Ökosil, with funding from the EU and countries around the Baltic Sea, the tailings pond at Sillamäe was capped and the Silmet rare earths processing plant modified so that it no longer produces any uncontrolled effluents.

    And the nonproliferation connection returns: Up until the mid-1980s, the Silmet plant produced yellowcake for the Soviet nuclear complex. Its beginnings were in 1946, under Lavrenty Beria’s development of a Soviet atomic bomb. I’ve been told that Silmet provided uranium for the Joe-1 shot in 1949. I don’t know if that’s true, or if it’s another of the wonderful stories like the ones I heard in the Los Alamos environmental restoration program.