Interview: 'From an Overall Safety Point of View, There is Not a Huge Concern' About Flooding at Yongbyon

Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
yongbyon-flood A view of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center shows flooding along the bank of the Kuryong River in Yongbyon, North Korea, August 6, 2020.
Airbus Defence & Space and 38 North/Pleiades via Reuters

The Korean peninsula has been hit by record-breaking precipitation, with state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reporting last week that floods had destroyed 40,000 hectares (154 square miles) of farmland, 16,680 homes, and 630 other buildings all over the country.

Commercial satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the country’s main nuclear facility, caught the attention of analysts at 38 North, a North-Korea analysis website funded by the Washington-based Stimson Center.

38 North reported that although the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon does not appear to have been recently operating, "damage to the pumps and piping within the pump houses presents the biggest vulnerability to the reactors."

"If the reactors were operating, for instance, the inability to cool them would require them to be shut down," the report said.

RFA’s Korean Service Thursday interviewed Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and current distinguished fellow with the Stimson Center’s 38 North program.

He discussed the potential damage that the flooding could cause to Yongbyon and the Pyongsan uranium mine, another flooded facility. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A view of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center on the bank of the Kuryong River in Yongbyon, North Korea, July 22, 2020. By August 6, 2020 the area had become flooded.
A view of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center on the bank of the Kuryong River in Yongbyon, North Korea, July 22, 2020. By August 6, 2020 the area had become flooded.
Airbus Defence & Space and 38 North/Pleiades via Reuters

RFA: It has been reported that the North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon was affected by the recent flooding. Do we have a major catastrophe on our hands?

Heinonen: As you know, I have been several times to Yongbyon, and I have also been there during flooding, and actually this flooding is about as bad as I think I saw when I was there. I think the first big flood I saw there, maybe it was in 1992, that long ago.

So I think my first reaction to these images, which also come from the organization which I now serve, the Stimson Center, … North Korea is aware of this flooding, they don’t come as a surprise, and they have taken some countermeasures in the design of these nuclear facilities to overcome any troubles. This is the first point, and I’ll return to it soon.

The second thing we need to keep in our mind is actually that these facilities are practically not operating now. So when you look at the satellite image survey, the five-megawatt reactor doesn’t operate, the experimental light-water reactor is under construction, the processing plant is far away from the river, but it still needs water in order to maintain it.

Same issue the uranium enrichment part, they need some water but the actual operation, we are not so sure how much it’s operating now. And then there are some other installations that use radioactive material. Not nuclear material, but [they conduct] radioactive experiments for medical, scientific and other purposes.

I don’t think this flooding has had much of an effect on those, so from an overall safety point of view, there is not a huge concern for the time being.

The next question: Has this flooding caused damage to the equipment there?

I don’t think there is any huge damage for the following reasons:

Let’s look now at the experimental light-water reactor and the five-megawatt reactor. I think that they can go for a while without having much water in use, or taken from the river, so they can stop the pumps… In addition to that, these kinds of installations, when they operate, they have a kind of filtering system in the front of the piping that takes the water. So it will also sieve away some of the dirt, so if they need to temporarily take some water I think they can perhaps manage it.

But certainly under current circumstances, you cannot go to long-term operations until the water level comes down, and until the front of these water-taking places are cleaned and put back in full order.

So this is my take on this, and I have seen them also designing and participating in a reactor that was built in Syria. And I was at that point in the IAEA and we have actually written some Syria reports about the water for that reactor…and it was I think, a fairly normal industrial arrangement for the water to be taken from the river, and how this system was made in such a way that it can handle also flooding.

Now we see that the intake building or the pump house in Yongbyon, particularly for the reactor, is surrounded by water, but I don’t think that it makes a huge damage on that because at least in Syria we saw that the electronics part was fairly well protected.

Then I also see that the people have not looked at the other water intake places. They are all concentrated only on water intake for the five-megawatt reactor and the experimental reactor.

On the other side of the river is a pump house which probably takes water to the river… and the situation there is pretty much the same as for the reactor, so there is a lot of water around the pump house… so that’s where we are.

So I don’t think that there is any dramatic situation. They need to do some fixing, but it’s not very likely that they are all destroyed.

There is one thing that people also need to remember. The construction of the buildings, in North Korea, their standards are not that advanced as you and I have become used to.

For example when it rains a lot, in some facilities, water can get to the cellar because of the poor isolation in the basement. So that’s another thing that is probably taking place in some of the facilities. We’re just not seeing it because satellite imagery will not show it.

What kind of damage has that caused? It’s hard to say. Most likely they just need to pump some water away and clean the premises, the cellars, and the lower levels of those buildings.

But again, I don’t think it will stop the operation of those facilities, since it didn’t do anything in the 1990s, so why would it do that today?

RFA: What is the danger of flooding at the Pyongsan uranium mine?

Heinonen: When you do the uranium mining, you use a lot of water to clean the ore, which in this case is anthracite coal in Pyongsan. So you have to clean it, you have to dissolve it, and then when you do this cleaning and this dissolution, you recover uranium, which is fine, but the same time you leave a lot of radioactive waste like radium, thorium, and then both of those, they are radioactive materials, so at one point in time, they decay to radon, which is a gas.

So, when you have these big ponds where the wastewater goes, we don’t know how well they are designed and how they deal hen there is a huge rain—whether the rain just falls into these open ponds, or whether they overflow and then this radioactive waste gets to the environment, groundwater, and then eventually either to the river, or to the drinking water of the people.

If that takes place, then it has an impact.

Also, we don’t know how well these ponds are actually made. In normal cases, actually they are like huge swimming pools. So they are not such that there is a pond or lake on a normal rice paddy or normal ground. You need to isolate this waste liquid from the rest of the ground water.

Since we don’t know how they have done that, I think that’s why when we look at this heavy rain, which was also in the Pyongsan area, that might be a matter of concern.

There is a possibility that water might overflow and get to the environment.

I’m not so worried about the milling facility itself, the one that takes the ore and separates uranium there, because they are chemical processes and they happen in piping and vessels and various tanks, so it should not impact the operations of those.

But the waste containment ponds are a different story. When you look at the image on the website, there are actually two such ponds. One is near the actual mine, up there on the mountain, and then there is a pipeline that [connects with the] milling facility, and then the liquids, which are waste from that milling facility, they cross the river in another pipe and go to a pond over there.

So those two ponds, one on the other side of the river and one up there on the mountain, I think, may have some risks when there is such a heavy rain as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

Reported by Sangmin Lee for RFA’s Korean Service.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.