North Korea may face technical problems following the restart of its 5 MWe nuclear reactor, according to an analysis by Karl Dewey, an expert with global insight firm IHS.
Dewey noted that Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed on Sept. 15 that North Korea had restarted its 5 MWe reactor saying that it, and other facilities, had “started normal operation.”
He says the 5 MWe reactor is the primary source of North Korea‘s plutonium stockpile. The plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The site was shutdown in 2007 and its cooling tower destroyed in June 2008, raising hopes that Pyongyang was prepared to roll back its nuclear program. Dewey says, however, that the hopes were short-lived as the North announced on April 2, 2013 it would revive the disabled reactor. By August 2013, steam was seen being discharged on satellite imagery, suggesting that the site was operational. The facility’s status was confirmed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service Director, Nam Jae-joon, on Oct. 8, 2013.
But Dewey says it won’t be easy to reopen the plant. “Despite the restart of the reactor, however, a number of issues may remain,” Dewey said. “The reactor itself is cooled with carbon dioxide gas that blows over the hot fuel rods. This gas also needs to be cooled and with the destruction of cooling tower, North Korean engineers have had to find an alternative way of completing this secondary cooling loop.”
He says it’s possible that water from the nearby Kuryong River is being used to cool the 5 MWe plant’s nuclear reactors. “This however, is an unreliable water source,” Dewey said. He notes that low water levels, occasional flooding, and winter freezing may have accounted for previous problems at the facility during its early operations. In late August 2013, the 5 MWe reactor was restarted with a temporary cooling system while a replacement sand dam to help control the Kuryong’s water levels was under construction. IHS also reported in June 2014 that the facility’s sand-dam had burst. “Such an unreliable cooling system raises questions about the long-term operations of the reactor,” Dewey said.