North Korean nuclear test site closure raises fears of environmental crisis

July 24, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

Closing down North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri is going to be more complicated and fraught with risk than has previously been suggested, with analysts suggesting that acting in haste for short-term political gain might lead to an environmental crisis.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, announced during his summit last month with Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart, that he would invite experts and journalists to the Punggye-ri site to monitor its decommissioning. 

Initially seen as a significant concession on the part of Pyongyang, it was subsequently reported that the six nuclear tests that have been carried out at the site since 2006 have caused serious structural damage to Mount Mantap, making it unsuitable for further tests. 

Satellite images have revealed landslides on the flanks of the mountain and a group of Chinese geologists have claimed in a study that the most recent nuclear test, in September 2017, turned the interior of the peak into “fragile fragments”. 

Two possible methods of rendering the site unable to conduct further tests have been proposed, The Korea Herald reported.

The 60-foot-tall cooling tower, which was later dismantled, is seen at the main Yongbyon nuclear reactor complexCredit:

One suggestion is to use explosives to seal the entrances to the three tunnels that have been drilled into the mountain, although the concern is that further detonations at the already weakened site could lead to a collapse of internal spaces and the release of massive amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. 

Given the danger, the alternative is to bury the entire site in a mixture of lime and sand. The drawback with this approach is that it would take a long time to completely seal the site, erosion would eventually uncover the site once again and foreign experts would be required to be on-site for an extended period of time, which the North Korean authorities may object to. 

“Dealing with nuclear waste is an old and difficult question and these are legitimate concerns that must be answered, although my more immediate concern is President [Donald] Trump, who appears to be driving for an agreement without a clear and open policy”, said Emanuel Pastreich, head of the Seoul-based Asia Institute.

“This administration has no interest in science and has a worrying tendency to ignore people who do understand science”, he said.

The concern, he added, must be that the US government will choose the quickest option in order to declare a diplomatic triumph for Mr Trump, but with little consideration for the longer-term impact of that decision. 

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