Late in the evening of April 26th, 1986, a safety test simulated a power station failure shut safety systems down at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. A combination of design flaws in the reactor and station personnel failing to adhere to established safety precautions during the test soon led to an uncontrollable chain reaction that would culminate in one of the largest nuclear disasters in history, leaving the region surrounding the facility uninhabitable to this day.
In the years that followed, multiple investigations into the incident produced the same glaring conclusions: that the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor could have been avoided, but the seclusion of Soviet engineers, experts and station personnel from the international nuclear community left them at a technological disadvantage. Because the Soviets opted to bar themselves from international cooperation in their nuclear endeavors, they lacked the expertise necessary to prevent the meltdown from occurring.
Now, more than 30 years later, that same recipe for disaster is brewing deep within North Korea’s secure borders.
In 2010, a group of experts hailing from Stanford and led by Dr. Siegfried Hecker were granted access to one of North Korea’s Experimental Light Water Reactors, which was still under construction at the time. Upon their return, they relayed a series of concerns that seemed eerily similar to the conclusions drawn in the years that followed the Chernobyl disaster; namely that the North Koreans were using poor construction methodologies and materials and that the team responsible for its construction and operation were too inexperienced and isolated from the expertise of the international community to safely operate the plant.
A recently released video of Kim Jong Un casually smoking a cigarette as he walks around an at-the-time untested Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile has prompted a resurgence in concerns about North Korea’s safety culture. That cigarette could have potentially ignited the liquid-fuel inside the unproven rocket as it was being erected for launch – ironically ending the Supreme Leader’s life.
Kim Jong-un just casually strolling around while the Hwasong-14 ICBM is erected is quite something. (Wouldn’t want a VIP that close.) pic.twitter.com/a3FDIenZYU
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) July 5, 2017
A functioning nuclear reactor requires an external power source and supply of water for cooling purposes. A failure in the nation’s clearly outdated power grid could easily result in a similar chain reaction to that seen in Chernobyl in 1986, and natural disasters like flooding, which is not unheard of in the region, could destroy channels relied on to redirect water flow into their reactors. In either event, a meltdown similar to that seen in Japan’s Fukushima would likely follow, resulting in radioactive fallout that would be a serious risk to the local populace and could have continued ramifications in neighboring nations like China and Russia.
It’s important to note that North Korea’s nuclear reactors are significantly less powerful than those employed in Chernobyl, meaning the breadth of the fallout would be smaller – but because of the government’s policy of secrecy, even regarding its own people, the risk to human life could exceed that found in Pripyat. Further, Kim’s unwillingness to acknowledge even dramatic failures, such as a tunnel collapse at his nuclear facility last month believed to have claimed the lives of some 200 people, could result in North Korean citizens not even being informed of the risk to their lives following such a meltdown.
The regional panic that could follow could be destabilizing for the North Korean regime and create conflicts near the nation’s secure borders. With tensions on the Korean peninsula already at highs unseen since the 1950s, it can be difficult to predict just how such a meltdown would play out in the geopolitical theater, and when it comes to the potential for war, unpredictability can rarely be considered a positive thing.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press