Source:  Columbia Pictures / Youtube screen grab
Source: Columbia Pictures / Youtube screen grab

North Korea faces the danger of a nuclear catastrophe — not war with the US — but the possibility of a China Syndrome-type accident at one of its domestic nuclear reactors.

Military researcher Matt Korda says in a post on 38 North that there’s evidence of lax safety standards at North Korean nuclear plants and that Pyongyang would have trouble containing the fallout from such a disaster.

“The ability of North Korea to safely operate its nuclear reactors, according to many experts, is increasingly being called into question given the North’s isolation and lack of safety culture,” Korda wrote in a Thursday analysis for the Johns Hopkins University website on North Korean affairs.

He says the North’s ability to respond effectively and quickly to such an accident will make the difference between a small-scale event and a catastrophic disaster. Though nuke contamination is likely to be localized, Korda warns that “the lack of transparency from North Korea in dealing with the situation is likely to cause political panic in the region in excess of the actual radiological exposure and environmental impact.”

North Korea’s main nuclear reactors are at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center north of Pyongyang. The facility provides nuclear material for the country’s nuke weapons program.

Korda noted that 38 North experts Niko Milonopoulos and Edward D. Blandford have previously outlined a scenario for a possible nuclear meltdown in North Korea. The analysts warned that a sudden fault in North Korea’s outdated power grid could prevent the Yongbyon reactors from being adequately cooled and could potentially trigger a meltdown. “Such an event could also be prompted by a natural disaster or abnormal weather patterns,” Korda said.

Korda notes that a possible opening of nuclear safety talks with the North might head off such calamities and provide a rare opportunity for regional dialogue. This, in turn, could also “pry open the door for realistic and productive discussions of North Korea’s nuclear program,” Korda said.