In Case You Were Wondering

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Where that plutonium that North Korea is using came from, the "Agreed Framework" arranged for the stabilization of 8,000 spent fuel rods the North Koreans had allowed to deteriorate to a point where they were in danger of falling apart. I'm still trying to find the inspector's report that stated how close to an accident those rods were. You know, where they would have been rendered unusable and unrecoverable. (Found it here. That fuel was almost at a stage where the plutonium would have been unrecoverable).

The remaining 7,700 fuel rods were in a window-lit cinder block building with peeling paint, where they sat in a concrete-lined pool of water roughly the size of a rectangular backyard swimming pool. The entire core had been hastily removed from the reactor in the spring of 1994 after a growing confrontation with the IAEA.

Two years earlier, the agency had found evidence that North Korea had reprocessed more than the 80 grams of plutonium 239 it had officially disclosed. When the IAEA then asked to inspect the reprocessing laboratory and radioactive waste tanks and analyze the spent fuel, North Korea refused, declaring instead that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But now, tensions were reduced.

Because of the sunlight and seasonal temperatures, there was a layer of algae on the top of the water. We could barely see several rods not so neatly tumbled into the metal baskets, which were stacked two or three upon each other. The water was made murky by a suspension of magnesium oxide–rust from the fuel cladding. It looked something like a diluted form of "Milk of Magnesia" (also a form of magnesium oxide).

Attempts to clean the water and reduce the erosion of the cladding had clogged the filter equipment; it was broken and heavily contaminated. The North Koreans had then added large amounts of sodium hydroxide (lye), a caustic chemical, to try to retard the erosion. Unfortunately, sodium hydroxide can create pinhole leaks in the cladding–exposing the uranium metal to water. Once that happens, the uranium will interact with the moisture and give off flammable and explosive hydrogen. If the uranium fuel is pulled out of the water it may spontaneously ignite.

Our fears about the danger of the North Korean spent fuel were confirmed. The cladding could seriously erode in the not so distant future, allowing highly radioactive materials to escape into the pool, creating a severe radiological hazard. Fires caused by wet uranium added another risk. We left a few days later, sobered by what we had observed.

However, the new, Republican-controlled Congress did not share our urgency, and congressional leaders made no secret of their desire to kill the Agreed Framework. Despite the unprecedented access we were given to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, Congress only grudgingly funded the spent fuel project, which cost about $20 million.

Each individual spent fuel rod was brushed in clean water, rinsed, and placed in a stainless steel tube. To retard the generation of hydrogen, inert gas was injected before the tubes were sealed and tagged for IAEA inspectors. U.S. contractors with special equipment were brought in, and North Korea supplied labor. Because of radiation and fire concerns, the operation involved partitioning the existing pool to allow for an area of clean water where the underwater processing and canning of the rods by remote instruments could be observed. My last visit to North Korea was in January 1995, when we finalized arrangements. Subsequently, I was responsible for hiring contractors and developing the project budget for congressional approval in the fall of 1995.

By October 1997, the spent fuel rods were safely encased in steel containers, under IAEA inspection. The reactor remained closed, construction on two other, larger reactors had stopped, and the reprocessing plant sat idle. After the spent fuel project was established, I went on to other work, leaving my memories locked away like a disturbingly vivid dream.

Before they were helpfully stabilized by the Clinton administration. At US taxpayer expense.

UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. John "Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat" Kerry is, of course, laying all the blame at Bush's feet. Kind of misses the point of where Kim got his plutonium there, Johnny-boy.

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