Wednesday, 6 January 2016

How Britain helped North Korean nuclear weapons programme

The overnight news that North Korea has successfully tested its first hydrogen (H-) nuclear warhead ( an assertion which has been seriously questioned by US nuclear weapons experts) has set the media and politicians running (“North Korea Says It Has Detonated Its First Hydrogen Bomb,“ ) pronouncing concerns over the impact on global security.
What hasn’t n been discussed is how British nuclear designs have been purloined by the North Koreans to build production plants for their nuclear explosives.
There is significant evidence that the British Magnox nuclear plant design – which was primarily built as a military plutonium production factory – provided the blueprint for the North Korean military plutonium programme based in Yongbyon. Here is what Douglas (now Lord) Hogg, then a Conservative minister, admitted in a written parliamentary reply in 1994: “We do not know whether North Korea has drawn on plans of British reactors in the production of its own reactors. North Korea possesses a graphite moderated reactor which, while much smaller, has generic similarities to the reactors operated by British Nuclear Fuels plc. However, design information of these British reactors is not classified and has appeared in technical journals.”
(Douglas Hogg, written parliamentary reply to Labour MP Llew Smith, Hansard 25 May  1994).
The uranium enrichment programmes of both North Korea and Iran also have a UK connection. The blueprints of this type of plant were stolen by Pakistani scientist, A Q Khan, from the URENCO enrichment plant in The Netherlands in the early 1970s.
(see David Albright, Peddling Peril,2010 pp 15-28,Free Press, New York)
This plant was -  and remains -  one-third owned by the UK government. The Pakistan government subsequently sold the technology to Iran, who later exchanged it for North Korean Nodong missiles.
A technical delegation from the A Q Khan Research Labs visited North Korea in the summer of 1996. The secret enrichment plant was said to be based in caves near Kumch’ang-ni, 100 miles north of the capital, Pyonyang, where US satellite photos showed tunnel entrances being built. Hwang Jang-yop, a former aid to President Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of the current North Korean President) who defected in 1997, revealed details to Western intelligence investigators
(Levy A, Scott-Clark C Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Global Weapons Conspiracy, 2007, p.281, Atlantic Books)
Magnox machinations
Magnox is a now obsolete type of nuclear power plant ( except in North Korea)  which was designed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in the early 1950s,  and was exported to Italy and Japan The name magnox comes from the alloy used to clad the fuel rods inside the reactor.
The plutonium production reactors at Calder Hall on the Sellafield site – then called Windscale, operated by the UKAEA) – were opened by the young Queen Elizabeth, on 17 October 1956. But it was never meant as a commercial civilian nuclear plant: the UKAEA official historian Kenneth Jay wrote about Calder Hall, in his short book of the same name, published to coincide with the opening of the plant. [He referred to] “major plants built for military purposes, such as Calder Hall.” (p.88) Earlier, he wrote: “… The plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant, to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power.” (p.80)
.The term magnox also encompasses:
·         Three North Korean reactors, all based on the open access blueprints of the Calder Hall Magnox reactors, including :
·         A small 5 MWe experimental reactor at Yongbyon, operated from 1986 to 1994, and restarted in 2003. Plutonium from this reactor's spent fuel has been used in the North Korea nuclear weapons program.
·         A 50 MWe reactor, also at Yongbyon, whose construction commenced in 1985 but was never finished in accord with the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework.
·         A 200 MWe reactor at Taechon, construction of which also halted in 1994.
Why enrich the people when you can enrich uranium?
Olli Heinonen, senior fellow at the internationally reknown  Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in the US has explained how North Korea obtained its uranium enrichment capability
He wrote five years ago:
“The pre-eminence of Juche, the political thesis of Kim Il Sung, stresses independence from great powers, a strong military posture, and reliance on national resources. Faced with an impoverished economy, political isolation from the world, and rich uranium deposits, nuclear power—both civilian as well as military—fulfills all three purposes.
History and hindsight have shown a consistency in North Korea’s efforts to develop its own nuclear capability. One of the first steps North Korea took was to assemble a strong national cadre of nuclear technicians and scientists. In 1955, North Korea established its Atomic Energy Research Institute. In 1959, it signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to train North Korean personnel in nuclear related disciplines. The Soviets also helped the North Koreans establish a nuclear research center and built a 2 MW IRT nuclear research reactor at Yongbyon, which began operation in 1969.
Throughout the 1970s, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear capabilities, pursuing a dual track approach that was consistent with the idea of nuclear self-reliance. While engaging in discussions to obtain Light Water Reactors (LWRs) from the Soviet Union, North Korea proceeded with parallel studies on graphite moderated gas cooled reactors, using publicly available information based on the Magnox reactor design."
North Korea also carried out plutonium separation experiments at its Isotope Production Laboratory (IPL), and successfully separated plutonium in the same decade. The North Koreans worked on the design of a reprocessing plant for which, the chemical process was modeled after the Eurochemic plant. Eurochemic was a research plant dedicated to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It was owned by thirteen countries which shared and widely published technologies developed. The plant, located in Dessel, Belgium, operated from 1966 to 1974.
When negotiations to acquire four LWRs from the Soviet Union failed, North Korea had already embarked on its indigenous nuclear program. Throughout the 1980s, North Korea constructed a 5MWe reactor, fuel fabrication plant, and a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, with no known documented external help and with minimal foreign equipment procured. When the joint statement on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was concluded in December 1991, all three facilities had been fully operational for a number of years, with two additional (50 MWe and 200 MWe) graphite moderated gas cooled reactors under construction.
North Korea’s closed society and isolationist position has made it immensely difficult to accurately gauge its nuclear activities. Pyongyang has gone to great lengths to hide much of its nuclear program, including its enrichment route. Nevertheless, there have been indications, including procurement related evidence, that point in the direction that North Korea has been actively pursuing enrichment since the mid-1990s, with likely exploratory attempts made up to a decade earlier.
It is clear that North Korea received a key boost in its uranium enrichment capability from Pakistan through the A.Q. Khan network. Deliveries of P-1 and P-2 centrifuges, special oils, and other equipment from Pakistan to North Korea in the late 1990s were acknowledged by former Pakistani President General P. Musharraf in his memoirs, “In the Line of Fire.” President Musharraf also wrote that, separately, North Korean engineers were provided training at A.Q. Khan’s Research Laboratories in Kahuta under the auspices of a government-to-government deal on missile technology that had been established in 1994. In all likelihood, North Korea also received the blue prints for centrifuges and other related process equipment from the Khan network during that period of time.
In the late 1980s, North Korea acquired vacuum equipment from a German company. While such equipment was primarily meant for North Korea’s fuel fabrication plant then under construction, some of the vacuum pumps could have been used for enrichment experiments. But additional attempts made in 2002 to again acquire vacuum technology after the completion of the fuel fabrication plant strongly pointed to its use for enrichment purposes. Evidence of North Korea’s procurement activities in the late 1990s to the early 2000s showed its objective to achieve industrial or semi-industrial scale enrichment capacity, based on a more efficient Pakistani P-2 centrifuge design. In 1997, an attempt was made to acquire large amounts of maraging steel suitable for manufacturing centrifuges. In 2002/2003, North Korea successfully procured large quantities of high strength aluminum from Russia and the United Kingdom, another requirement in making centrifuges.
 A simple tally of the amounts and types of equipment and material sought by North Korea suggests plans to develop a 5000-centrifuge strong enrichment capacity. This appears consistent with a separate earlier enrichment offer A. Q. Khan had made to Libya.
For North Korea to have embarked on procuring equipment and materials meant for a (semi)industrial scale enrichment facility,[3] it is highly likely that the known Uranium Enrichment Workshop (UEW) at Yongbyon, which in reality approximates a full sized facility, is not the only one that exists. More workshops would have been needed to serve as test beds for pilot cascades of P-1 and P-2 centrifuges prior to (semi)industrial scale enrichment operations. While we have signs of North Korea’s enrichment goals, the final picture remains unclear given that the actual amount of items procured remains unknown. This problem is compounded by the fact that the North Koreans have and are continuing to source nuclear material and equipment from several parties. Moreover, there remains a high degree of uncertainty concerning the level of North Korea’s enrichment technology development.
In April 2009, after expelling IAEA inspectors, North Korea publicly announced for the first time that it was proceeding with its own enrichment program. To reinforce its intentions, North Korea followed up with a letter to the UN Security Council on September 3 to confirm that it was embarking on an enrichment phase. In November 2010, the North Koreans unveiled to Siegfried Hecker, a pre-eminent nuclear expert and former director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, an enrichment facility in Yongbyon with 2000 centrifuge machines similar to the P-2 version, built with maraging steel rotors.( S. Hecker, Redefining Denuclearization in North Korea, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, December 20, 2010.)
Implications and Consequences
(On March 22, 2011, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, portrayed Libya’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons as a mistake that opened the country to NATO intervention following its domestic Arab Spring uprising. Such conclusions drawn by North Korea make an already difficult case to engage North Korea to give up its nuclear weapon deterrence that much harder. At the same time, the alternative of disengagement will in all likelihood bring about greater problems.
In engaging North Korea, several key hurdles have to be tackled. First, North Korea shows a poor proliferation record. It was the suspected supply source of UF6 to Libya via the A.Q. Khan network. There is also mounting evidence that North Korea was involved in the construction of a secret nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour in Syria that was subsequently destroyed in 2007. It is plausible that North Korean personnel assisted Syria in building the reactor.
(“North Korea’s Nuclear Enrichment: Capabilities and Consequences" Op-Ed, 38; 22 June 2011
End note

The Western Mail newspaper’s report on the closure of Wales’ last nuclear power plant, at Wylfa on Anglesey, marks an important moment in Welsh industrial history.
Wylfa Site Director Stuart Law is reported as saying the closure marks a “safe and dignified end to the generation of electricity at Wylfa” and that the main focus for the coming months is to prepare staff and the site for defuelling the Magnox reactors, originally ordered by the now defunct nationalised power generator, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in the late 1960s.
But the account of the 44 years of operating life of the reactor omits one important aspect: the production of plutonium for use in nuclear warheads, both in Britain and the US.
This was first revealed in an exclusive Western Mail front page story by your then political editor, Sarah Neville, on October 8, 1984. It was followed in more detail by former Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, Llew Smith – for whom I used to do research – in a feature article in the Western Mail on March 3, 1986, followed by a letter in the paper from Mr Smith (“Safety problems at Wylfa Nuclear plant”, December 11, 1995).
Mr Smith cited an interview I conducted on January 19, 1983, with the late Lord Hinton, the first chairman of the CEGB, in which he said to me: “Wylfa is a long and sad story. It ought not to have been built at all, but when I suggested this to the Permanent Secretary [at what is now the Department of Energy and Climate Change] he said you have got to build it in order to meet the government programme.”
The programme to which Lord Hinton referred was not electricity generation but plutonium production, as became clear in the Sizewell B nuclear plant public inquiry, which had just begun when I interviewed Lord Hinton.
During that inquiry, Professor Keith Barnham who, with myself, gave expert evidence for the CND Sizewell Working Group, produced technical evidence demonstrating that around 630kg (+ or – 80 kg) of plutonium produced in UK magnox reactors had been exported to the US for military use (a nuclear warhead typically uses 5-10kg). This research was published in detail in the prestigious science weekly journal Nature on September 19, 1985.
A decade later, in October 1995, a former Labour peer, the late Lord Hugh Jenkins of Putney, a life-long CND supporter, asked the Government in a written Parliamentary question “how much plutonium Wylfa nuclear power station has created since it began operation in 1971, where it has gone and where is it now, and what relationship there is at the plant between plutonium production and the generation of electricity”.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, answering for the Conservative Government, said: “Since 1986/87, estimates of the plutonium contained in the reactor discharges at Wylfa power station have been published as part of the annual plutonium figures. I cannot answer for previous administrations.
“Amounts arising from Wylfa continue to contribute to the United Kingdom’s civil holdings under international safeguards…Irradiated fuel from Britain’s various civil Magnox reactors is reprocessed together and therefore the plutonium arising, whether in store or exported, is not linked to the specific power station in which it was created.”
The give-away is the minister’s admission that nuclear fuel from all Magnox reactors was “reprocessed together” (at Sellafield) and hence the recovered plutonium loses its identity.
The export of UK plutonium to the US took place under a controversial 1958 bilateral UK-US deal, called the Mutual Defense Agreement on Atomic Energy Matters. The word defence is spelled with an “s” even in the British edition, giving away the origin of its drafters in the US!
When this draft agreement was discussed in the US Congress on February 4, 1958 (it was never debated in the British Parliament at all before coming into force) Lewis Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, let slip the following nugget of information on the aim of the deal with the UK: “This is primarily to supply plutonium to us for our unrestricted use, which is to say, at present, our military use.”
This UK-US MDA was most recently renewed in October 2014, and, despite being challenged by the then Labour backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn, in a Parliamentary debate on November 6, 2014, remains in force.
So when Wylfa’s final discharge of spent nuclear fuel is finally reprocessed at Sellafield, the plutonium could still end up in US nuclear warheads. We should not be complacent about this.
(“Little-known function of Welsh power plant”; Western Mail, letters, 4 January 2016

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