I am delighted that my article on the modernization of the uranium mill at Pyongsan is getting so much attention.
I do, however, have to register a small reservation — partly about the coverage but mostly about my own role in it. I study nuclear weapons, so I am first and foremost interested in what the operation of the uranium mill means for North Korea’s nuclear programs. It is natural that I would focus on the possibility that the modernization of the mill means more North Korean nuclear weapons, which is a definitely a bad thing.
But it is also a speculative thing — North Korea might someday use those nuclear weapons to kill people or it might maim or kill people in conventional provocations that it would not have undertaken with a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.
What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm. That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community. I often complain that nuclear nonproliferation doesn’t get enough attention, but like any security issue nuclear war gets loads more attention than “small” harms like environmental pollution and human health.
Of course, those aren’t small harms to the people who are being poisoned. Nor is this harm speculative. Over time, small or not, these harms accumulate. One of the problems in public policy, as I see it, is that we give short shrift to small harms but very real harms.
I did include a paragraph about the environmental harm posed by the mill, one that highlighted the clean-up effort at Sillamäe in Estonia. My friend Cheryl Rofer worked on the Sillamäe site remediation. I can heartily recommend the book she edited with Tönis Kaasik, Turning a Problem into a Resource: Remediation and Waste Management at the Sillamäe Site, Estonia (Springer, 2000).
But my mention of environmental issues was only a few words. I am sure those people working on these really, really important issues will feel slighted. Well, before they have a chance to feel that way, I wanted to an issue an open invitation for suggestions about how I might do better next time. As I am writing this, I’ve thought of a number of things I might have done differently. I am ready to hear more.