Most people think of North Korea (DPRK, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) as a forbidden realm, a place that cannot be entered. Actually, a lot of Westerners and South Koreans have been visiting North Korea over the last few years. There are organized tours of a few notable locations established and North Korea has been actively trying to attract outside investment. Of course, all these visits are rigidly controlled and visitors can only see what the government wants to show them.
I was finally able to visit North Korea in August 2002 to attend a ceremony for the first concrete pour at the KEDO Light Water Reactor (LWR) nuclear power plant site. This was a very limited view of North Korea but it still provided some insight into life in what may well be the most difficult country in the world to visit. First I will explain a little about the LWR project.
KEDO is the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (www.KEDO.org). This organization was created in 1995 to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea agreed to abandon it's nuclear weapons program and the US, South Korea, Japan and other countries agreed to provide energy assistance including two 1000 MW nuclear power plants of a design which would not support development of nuclear weapons. These plants were originally expected to operate by about 2003. However, delays in establishing a site and funding the projects means the plants will not be finished until about 2007.
The plants are a standard South Korean design, based on the plants we designed when I was first here in 1987 to 1989. South Korea now has 18 operating nuclear units, 6 of which are of this basic design. Two more are under construction with another 6 in the design stage. These units are among the safest and most reliable in the world. The first of these designs has been operating for about 10 years. The units generally operate at over 100% power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 12 to 18 months before shutting down to refuel.
This illustration shows the 6 operating units at the Yonggwangg site. The first two units are an older design and the last 4 are the new 1000 MW design, so this site has a total of about 6000 MW capacity. To put this in perspective, 1000 MW will provide power for about a million people in the US and perhaps 2 million in South Korea (and a lot more in North Korea). The cost per unit is between 2 and 3 billion US$.
OK, why are we building nuclear units in North Korea? The agreement reached in 1994 provided energy assistance in exchange for the DPRK abandoning operation of the 5MW Plutonium production reactor and stopping construction on larger weapons production reactors. [Warning: Technical Mumbo Jumbo Starts Here] There are two common ways to produce nuclear weapons materials. One is to produce Plutonium (as a relatively pure Pu-239 isotope) in a production reactor and the other is to enrich Uranium to weapons grade (greater than 90% U-235 isotope). Like all Uranium fueled reactors, the Light Water Reactors produce Pu-239. However, it is produced in a highly radioactive matrix of contaminating isotopes, making production of weapons materials so difficult as to be impractical. [End of Technical Mumbo Jumbo]
The money for these units is being provided by various countries. Most comes from South Korea with contributions from South Korea and Japan making up about 90% of the funding with the balance from Europe. The US (probably due to discomfort with building nuclear power plants for DPRK) provides no money directly for the reactors. However, the US provides 500,000 tons of oil per year (suspended since the end of 2002 due to DPRK resumption of weapons programs).