Small LWR Development and Denuclearization

In a 38 North Special Report, Nautilus Institute’s David von Hippel, Scott Bruce, and Peter Hayes suggest an energy engagement strategy for reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.


Light water reactor plant units 1 and 2 at Simpo (Shimpo), North Korea (source:

The unveiling of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) enrichment and pilot light water reactor program offers another moment for engagement with Pyongyang, another point of leverage over how its nuclear weapons program evolves, and a new opportunity to determine whether it can be influenced to recommit to the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

We believe that it may be possible to slow and even reverse North Korea’s nuclear breakout through collaboration that assists Pyongyang in the development of small light water reactors (LWRs) that are safe, reliable, and above all, safeguarded, and that integrates its enrichment capacity into a regional consortium. Engagement could entail some or all of the following steps[i]:

  • Immediately deploying a small barge-mounted reactor (possibly Russian) to provide power to a coastal North Korean town;
  • Helping the North participate in the production of low-enriched uranium to fuel such a reactor;
  • Jointly designing with North Korea a “made-in-the-DPRK” small reactor that meets international safety and manufacturing standards, possibly in a joint project with South Korean firms;
  • Undertaking planning for the rational development of a national power grid in the DPRK capable of supporting small reactors over the coming decade; 
  • Creating a multilateral financing scheme (possibly linked to a regional grid connecting the North with the South Korean, Chinese and Russian Far East grids) for the construction of small LWRs in the North, starting with a survey of its manufacturing capabilities that might meet the international standards required for safe, reliable reactor production;
  • Creating a regional enrichment consortium involving Japan, South Korea, and North Korea (and other countries) with Pyongyang’s enrichment capacities either incorporated into a safeguarded scheme or operated as part of a multinational facility.

In return, North Korea would reveal its enrichment acquisition history and possibly participate in the development of a small reactor export program as part of an inter-Korean nuclear export push as well as a program of training and institutional development to support each of these activities. 

Since engagement with the North on nuclear energy issues cannot occur in a vacuum, it should be accompanied by other policy, economic, and humanitarian initiatives. But most importantly, it must be accompanied by engagement on a range of other energy sector issues including electricity transmission and distribution grid redevelopment, conventional power and fuels supply, and the development of energy markets to spur efficiency, renewable energy, and capacity-building…

Read the full report: Small LWR Development and Denuclearization,” by David von Hippel, Scott Bruce, and Peter Hayes (Feb 17, 2011; 13 pps)

[i] This article has been abstracted and adapted from the Nautilus Institute Special Report Online, Engaging the DPRK Enrichment and Small LWR Program: What Would It Take?, by David von Hippel and Peter Hayes,

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