North Korea Struggles for 20 Years to Complete Hydropower Plant

2013-09-27
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This undated picture released by the official Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 2, 2011 shows Kim Jong Il inspecting the construction site of the Huichon power station in Jagang province.
This undated picture released by the official Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 2, 2011 shows Kim Jong Il inspecting the construction site of the Huichon power station in Jagang province.
AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS

A hydropower plant in energy-starved North Korea under construction for nearly 20 years is no closer to completion, sources in the country say, after a series of nuclear tests left the project damaged and in need of major repair.

Authorities in Yanggang province’s Baekam county began construction on the Hwangto Plant, known by the name of a nearby village, in early 1995 with plans for a generation capacity of 50,000 kilowatts when completed.

When the dam remained unfinished in May of 2004, the North Korean ruling Workers’ Party’s Youth League renamed the project “Baekdu Songun Youth Power Station” and mobilized 8,000 laborers in a concerted effort to complete it by the party’s 61st anniversary on Oct. 10, 2006.

But according to sources in Yanggang province, three nuclear tests believed to have been detonated at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in nearby North Hamgyong province over the past seven years collapsed the project’s spillway, which is used to release controlled flows from the dam, and it will require massive repairs.

“The Baekdu Songun Youth Power Station, which was planned to be completed by Oct. 10, 2006 had several sections collapse as a result of the first nuclear test carried out by the authorities,” one source from the province told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said that at the time of the test, which was carried out the day before the plant was to be completed, portions of Baekam cave, located far from the epicenter of the nuclear explosion, also collapsed from the shock.

“Naturally, the power station was more severely damaged because it is much closer to the nuclear test site than Baekam cave is,” he said.

North Korea’s first nuclear test was widely seen to be a “fizzle,” with the bomb failing to meet its expected yield. The U.S., France, and South Korea measured an explosion with a yield of less than 1 kiloton and the bomb is believed to have resulted in the smallest initial nuclear test in history.

Second test

Another source in Yanggang province said that North Korea’s second nuclear test—carried out on May 25, 2009 and largely viewed as the country’s first fully successful test—again caused the dam’s spillway to collapse, killing three laborers and injuring another three.

He said that more than a year later, the spillway remained inoperable during a visit by the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“In May 2010, Kim Jong Il visited the plant to inspect the spillway destroyed by the nuclear test,” he said.

“The collapsed channel was still being reconstructed with steel and cement after his visit.”

North Korea detonated a third nuclear device on Feb. 12, 2013 with a recorded yield of up to 40 kilotons, though the sources did not elaborate on what damage may have occurred to the project at that time.

The sources said that the dam had been designed by digging the spillway deep into the surrounding rock, “therefore, it will take a significant amount of time to reconstruct it using steel and cement to repair the damage done by the nuclear tests.”

North Korea suffers from widespread electricity shortages and is now moving towards hydroelectric power as a supplement for its dwindling coal resources.

The Huichon No. 2 Power Station, located at a dam in Jagang province, is the country’s largest construction project since the 1980s and is expected to be expanded to 12 stations by 2015.

But sources last year told RFA that the capital Pyongyang, which is supplied by the station and where residents normally enjoy one of the most reliable power supplies in any city across the impoverished nation, suffered severe power shortages due in part to the inability of the dam to operate at full capacity during the annual dry season.

Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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