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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Succor for North Korea

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In his famous "axis of evil" speech, President George W. Bush said "North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens."

Fair enough.

So why is the United States hand-delivering to Great Leader Kim Jong Il a pair of nuclear power reactors capable of producing enough weapons-grade plutonium each year to make dozens of nuclear bombs?

In the early 1990s, North Korea was running domestically built reactors that were churning out bomb-grade plutonium. It was the heart of a covert weapons program that has, according to U.S. intelligence, already yielded "one or two" nuclear bombs.

The Clinton administration convinced Pyongyang to shut down those reactors and to allow in UN weapons inspectors. In return, North Korea was to get two U.S.-designed light-water reactors, or LWRs, and free heating oil each year until they were built. The Bush team has not blocked the policy, and last month concrete was poured for the reactor foundations.

If North Korea needs energy to replace its homemade reactors, why not build them coal- or gas-fired plants? These are far cheaper to build and run than nuclear plants. And as an added bonus, coal plants can't moonlight as factories for weapons of mass destruction.

Apparently the State Department has convinced itself light-water reactors can't be used to make bombs. But they can -- something the State Department does recognize when discussing Russia's plans to build the same reactors in Iran.

"LWRs could be used to produce dozens of bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium in both North Korea and Iran," write Henry Sokolski, who runs a nuclear nonproliferation center (www.npec-web.org) in Washington, and Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "This is true of all LWRs -- a depressing fact U.S. policymakers have managed to block out."

Even the State Department's uneasily evasive language gives up the game: the LWRs in North Korea (apparently unlike Russia's in Iran) are "proliferation-resistant." As opposed, one assumes, to "proliferation-proof."

The old Korean-designed reactors had to be refueled frequently, and it was easy for Pyongyang to quietly pull out the bombs-grade gunk inside. Light-water reactors, by contrast, have to be shut down for an extended period to extract such material. This is what qualifies them as "proliferation-resistant" -- because it's hard to do this secretly.

Sokolski and Gilinsky, writing in The Washington Post, cited a study by the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory, which says upon the first scheduled refueling -- about 15 months after the reactors go into operation -- an LWR will contain about 300 kilograms of near-weapons grade material. Assume North Korea diverts that material to bomb-making, and it could have "a couple of dozen bombs in a couple of months."

Yet the program's backers argue, straight-faced, that because North Korea knows it will eventually be caught, it will be afraid to do this. Never mind that North Korea, like Iraq, is still keeping out UN weapons inspectors. And never mind that since Sept. 11 last year, Washington has denied Americans much the same knowledge of reactor safety and operations it now intends to share with a regime listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The whole arrangement is so ludicrous that it's surprising more of America's enterprising politicians aren't piling on to complain about it. We are using the holiest of holies -- the American taxpayer's dollar -- to build a nuclear program for a reclusive North Korean dictator. Duh!

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].