Remediation of Yongbyon: The First Step Towards Cooperative Threat Reduction?

The Yongbyon nuclear site before demolition of a cooling tower on June 27, 2008. (Photo: Newsweek/Kyodo/Reuters.)

On June 30, US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un agreed that the US and North Korea would soon resume working-level negotiations over the North’s nuclear program. The ultimate outcome of these discussions remains to be seen, but it seems clear that a key component of any future arrangement will be dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. In March, South Korea’s Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-chul, advocated reintroducing a program based on the US experience with Russia and other countries with Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons through steady exchanges of economic incentives. It is an open question whether such an effort goes beyond dismantlement to include conversion of resources at the Yongbyon nuclear facility to assist in the DPRK’s economic development. For example, one possibility would be the establishment of programs to redirect weapons scientists to civilian programs, as was done in Russia, Ukraine, Iraq and elsewhere. More ambitious schemes raised by the North Koreans would seek to convert the Yongbyon facility into a peaceful scientific research center. Regardless of the approach taken—whether there is a single-minded focus on dismantlement or consideration of more ambitious plans for economic revitalization—remediation will be an essential first step.

Phases in the Environmental Remediation Process

Environmental remediation includes minimizing contamination and removing radioactive, chemical and physical hazards to levels that would permit alternative peacetime activities. At Yongbyon, it must include decommissioning the radiochemistry building, uranium centrifuge cascades and 5 MWe Reactor. Regardless of the exact approach, a remediation strategy should reflect a clear North Korean vision of a desired end state and an understanding of the challenges to realizing that outcome and how to overcome them. The scope of the effort can be determined only after concluding a complete characterization of the site. This undertaking will require time, money and multinational cooperation to address hazards, safety precautions, resource requirements, and radioactive waste processes and storage. This cooperation will help improve trust among the involved countries and provide a foundation for further nuclear dismantlement and economic growth. Characterization and remediation of Yongbyon should be conducted in six distinct phases of work:[1]

Figure: Ronald K. Chesser.

Phase I—Science Diplomacy and International Team Building

The first phase would involve a preliminary visit of principal investigators to Yongbyon to assess logistical support, establish key DPRK contacts that will facilitate the assessments, determine access needs and evaluate local laboratory capabilities and protocols. This phase would enable face-to-face discussions between the US and DPRK administrators and scientists responsible for overseeing the cooperative efforts for site and facility characterization. It is also anticipated that field assistants and analysts from the DPRK would be assigned to help conduct preliminary fieldwork. The US team would seek to make contacts at scientific and technical institutes in North Korea to buttress collaboration and training.

A broad scoping survey would be required to supplement a comprehensive site characterization. The results should be sufficient to provide a general understanding of potential hazards at the prospective work sites as well as to assist the assessment team and DPRK collaborators to: 1) determine the radiation dose environment[2] and potential hazards and safety concerns in which the characterizations will take place; 2) estimate the geographic and numerical scope of the required sampling regime; 3) determine the number of assistants required for fieldwork and level of training needed for collaborative personnel; 4) assess on-site laboratory capabilities and response times; 5) evaluate the skill levels and work ethics of North Korean field assistants and laboratory personnel; 6) provide insights for the feasibility of ultimate site objectives, including unrestricted use, restricted use and mixed use;[3] and, importantly, 7) ensure that field teams have access to the sites required for a complete environmental characterization.

Subsequent to the scoping survey and analyses, the principal investigators from the US and DPRK would formulate work plans, timetables and logistical support requirements for the site characterization at Yongbyon.

Phase II—International Team Coordination and Training

In the second phase, an international team of experts would be assembled to convene a workshop focused on detailing work plans for all teams. The specific partners would be determined after the scoping survey data are complete and agreements have been reached on the scope of work. After the labs have been identified, the international team would meet to discuss lab and personnel responsibilities as well as equipment needs and financial arrangements.[4] If DPRK personnel are unable to travel outside North Korea, the team meetings would be held at or near Yongbyon.[5] Representatives from each cooperating laboratory, as well as field survey/sampling teams, database personnel and regulators, would also attend. Personnel training would be provided to ensure knowledge of safety and emergency procedures. Training would take place in the classroom and in live exercises with trainees carrying out their assigned responsibilities under the supervision of the organizers. Training would also include assessment of environmental samples and statistical evaluations of standardized tests to ensure that the sampling meet established criteria.

Phase III—Site & Facility Characterization Work

Field/facility sampling would be the most demanding and labor-intensive part of site characterization. The size and complexity of Yongbyon dictate that multiple teams will be required to complete this process in a reasonable period. Also, field sampling would require extensive and carefully managed recordkeeping to ensure that quality assurance is maintained, and databases are accurate.

Proposed field survey teams comprised of both North Korean and international personnel would also need to review work plans and work would not begin until safety concerns of the regulators have been satisfactorily addressed. Data collected during field sampling, including physical samples of soil cores, water, vegetation, swabs from scrap/equipment and various materials, would be transferred to database personnel. Laboratory teams would then perform analyses of these samples and the results would be cross-checked with the same samples collected by cooperating US/Russian/European labs to determine whether there are potential problems in techniques or equipment calibrations and detector readings at the North Korean laboratories. Engineering safety assessments of designated buildings would be conducted on a room-to-room basis using prescribed work plans. Remedial actions would be taken until each room has met prescribed safety protocols.

Phase IV—Analysis, Documentation and Reporting

The objectives of the fourth phase are to conduct complete analyses of all physical samples, make recommendations for equipment purchases and procedures to bring the DPRK laboratories into compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-compliant labs, write a collaborative report detailing environmental contamination and hazards at Yongbyon, and discuss the subsequent stage in characterizations needed to dismantle and/or disable specific nuclear facilities. Recommendations for several critical decisions would be made at this time, including:

  • Zones that may qualify as unrestricted use, limited activity, or restricted activity, including signage and fenced areas to restrict activities.
  • Priority criteria for site cleanup/remediation to meet future use objectives.
  • Laboratory and engineering needs to meet remediation and dismantlement needs.
  • Formulation of plans to dismantle the selected building and sort the resulting waste stream to determine zones and travel paths that will serve as waste storage areas.
  • Personnel requirements for initiating remediation and dismantlement and expanding collaboration and training.

Completion of this phase will permit assessment of the engineering requirements for dismantlement of buildings and more complex post-dismantlement characterizations in accordance with international standards.

Phase V—Staged Characterization during Facility Dismantlement

Characterization does not end after the environmental report is submitted to the regulatory body. Prior phases of characterization can only report contamination evident from surface inspections; the active dismantlement of structures may also expose previously undetected contaminated materials. Thus, aerial releases must also be monitored for on-site and off-site exposures. The extent of the effort required for such staged characterization will depend on historical uses of a facility. Reprocessing and chemical facilities will require much greater scrutiny than administrative offices; nevertheless, staged characterization will require all field and laboratory resources utilized in the prior phases of work. For the high-priority facilities at Yongbyon, this will represent the most challenging, time-consuming and hazardous phase of characterization.

Phase VI—Post-Dismantlement Characterization & Reporting

The final phase of characterization would produce a report to regulators of post-dismantlement levels of contamination across the entire site. Characterization procedures would be similar to Phase III except for the absence of targeted structures. Regulators would use the final report to either release the site or require more extensive remediation. Data from the post-dismantlement characterization will be used to determine future site-use restrictions for the relevant facility.

Developing a Master Plan

A comprehensive master plan should address the safety and work plans required to remediate the buildings and surroundings to conditions required for the desired environmental outcome. It may seem, therefore, that development of a master plan for the Yongbyon site should precede decisions on initial projects. There are many unknown conditions that must be better understood, however, before decisions on future use can be made. The process of completing the initial project should demonstrate the skill sets of workers, the availability of materials, the ease of conforming to local regulatory constraints and the ability to recruit outside expertise to meet reconstruction goals. Moreover, a full environmental characterization may show that portions of the Yongbyon site are not suitable or cost effective for remediation to the standards required. Indeed, widespread contamination combined with the remoteness of the site may make Yongbyon unsuitable to use as an economic revitalization zone. Site assessments will provide useful information for formulating the scope of future site-use plans and the economic potential of businesses or industrial programs.

Once there is assurance that the environmental conditions can be met it will be necessary to establish potential cost sharing and international investments needed for construction, initial operations and future growth/expansion of the proposed programs. Lifting of United Nations sanctions would be required to realize the full potential for significant growth of private enterprises and industries in North Korea. Future plans for Yongbyon must be based on sound scientific information as well as careful consideration of political will.

Building Sustainable Programs

Enthusiasm for continued cooperative work will be sustainable if it produces positive, visible results. The Yongbyon facility is a highly visible North Korean success story. Because it is a symbol of national pride and achievement, decommissioning and abandoning this site may be an unpalatable prospect for the DPRK. Quickly repurposing a portion of the site to serve private, public, political or military sectors may help to mitigate North Korean resistance by providing services not available, or in short supply, in the DPRK and employing many retrained personnel from the Yongbyon region. Ideally, the initial project would remodel buildings on the site after they have been remediated to unrestricted use standards. Typically, the high-priority projects would contain the highest amount of contamination and/or present the greatest challenge for dismantlement.[6] Remediation of other buildings, which would require more time and resources, would not be a top priority for the site.

Changing the operational culture and exposing North Korean workers to international methods may be more important than technical training, especially if the trainees are suspicious of the motives of their trainers. Therefore, it is important to enact programs that expose North Korean scientists and administrators to international counterparts from respectable agencies. They need to see that the mandated rules, regulations and standards are not arbitrary or onerous, but rather internationally accepted standards that are integral to a well-functioning global marketplace. Recent workshops sponsored by the IAEA on nuclear dismantlement and remediation methods were attended by participants from over 40 countries. Inclusion of North Korean scientists and administrators would demonstrate that the principles and best practices enjoy international consensus.

Dismantlement of large nuclear facilities requires extensive preparation and coordination of effort from a diverse set of organizations. If it is integrated with site characterization, it would be practical to organize the dismantlement process into manageable phases; select “easy” dismantlement projects for practice before attempting to dismantle complex, high-risk facilities; and reduce site characterization time and effort by tailoring it to the practical needs of the dismantlement group. Chronologically, nuclear facility site characterization would begin before physical dismantlement of buildings, reactors and fixed equipment. But at the same time, the characterization strategy must be consistent with the objective of dismantlement. This means that the groundwork for dismantlement should be laid concomitant with site characterization. Moreover, dismantlement of selected objects can begin while site characterization activities are continuing in other areas of the nuclear site.


Environmental remediation of Yongbyon is an ideal program for cooperative threat reduction that would serve the mutual interests of the United States and North Korea. It will require mutual trust and sustained international technical cooperation to eliminate the DPRK’s fissile material production capabilities, increase North Korean economic growth and redirect former weapons scientists to peaceful civilian purposes compliant with international standards.

  1. [1]

    The separation of schedules is a necessary element of the work because of uncertainties for the working environment at Yongbyon, the need to establish administrative, scientific and collaborative contacts in the DPRK prior to commitment to large-scale deployment of personnel and equipment, to employ adequate safety assurances and training prior to fieldwork, to scale the field teams and equipment to the level of available life support at the site, and to establish mutually agreed-upon work plans and schedules to accomplish the site characterization. All phases of the work should include DPRK collaborators and it is expected that the DPRK will designate regulators, a program manager, project planners, team leaders and safety officers to help administer the work.

  2. [2]

    The dose rates, as well as radionuclide activities, will be used to address personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, safety training requirements and work-time limits for the areas.

  3. [3]

    The data will permit preliminary discussions regarding remediation options together with the financial commitments needed to meet each objective.

  4. [4]

    Subsequent to the international team meeting, a workshop will be held to formulate checklists of necessary equipment and personal protective equipment, finalize forms for field data records, laboratory and database procedures, sampling plans/maps and dosimetry records for all personnel.

  5. [5]

    It is anticipated that this training workshop will require a period of four to six weeks and will generally follow the format established by the “Train and Engage” program conducted by Texas Tech University and the International Radioecology Laboratory (Ukraine) for 27 Iraqi personnel in June 2008.

  6. [6]

    This was the case when all dismantlement projects in Iraq were ranked by Iraqi and international delegates at the IAEA in 2007-2008. After considerable debate, however, it was decided that the first project (dismantlement of the Active Metallurgy Testing Laboratory, LAMA) should be one that had low radioactive contamination, had only a brief history of use of chemicals and radionuclides, but was a facility well known to Iraqi ministries. Dismantlement of this facility enabled the development of regulator practices and guidelines, safety procedures, monitoring methods, engineering requirements and characterizing techniques before the Iraqi trainees would encounter more hazardous working environments posed by reactors or radiochemistry labs. Close cooperation with the IAEA provided credibility that the deconstruction practices were consistent with international standards.

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