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South Korea analyzes seawater for nuclear waste contamination from North Korean uranium mine

Waste Water Containing Radioactive Materials (Gillette, Bill/WikiCommons)
September 01, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The government of South Korea is conducting analyses on seawater samples taken from the Yellow sea, situated west of the Korean peninsula, after a report by RFA’s Korean Service raised the possibility of radioactive waste from a uranium mine in North Korea flowing into the sea.

RFA’s report published on August 15 said that waste from the Pyongsan uranium mine in North Hwanghae province, and its ore milling process, were leaking from a pipeline constructed over the Ryesong river, with the potential to contaminate downstream locations including the sea. It cited claims by Jacob Vogel, a U.S.-based North Korea expert.

The river flows south into the estuary where the Han river meets the sea. The estuary is divided by the de-facto maritime border between the two Koreas, called the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the South.

“We collected the seawater near the NLL on the morning of August 23rd, and we are already analyzing [the samples],” said Lee Sang-min, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

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“The analysis will take about two weeks,” said the spokesperson, adding that the ministry would release more details once the study is complete.

The ministry also said on a social networking site on Aug. 23 that it would also collect and analyze seawater from six other locations near the NLL.

During a press briefing, Lee said that Pyongsan has only uranium mines and uranium mills, and that experts are advising the government that radioactive contaminants in those types of facilities cannot harm the human body.

Regardless, concerned voices in the public sector are calling for accurate fact-finding missions to ensure public safety.

Shin Yong-hyeon, a spokesperson for South Korea’s opposition Bareunmirae Party, said during a party meeting Tuesday that the decision to analyze the seawater was a belated response.

Meanwhile the Seoul Shinmun newspaper published an article by the Institute of Korean Studies’ Park Sang-Eun Monday which urged the South Korean government to conduct an investigation into the matter with private scholars.

Experts in South Korea point out that there is a need to confirm North Korean authorities are properly managing the mine, because even a tiny amount of radiation could be harmful if it is stored in the human body for a long period of time.

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Kim Ik-jung, a former medical professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University who served as a member of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, told RFA that North Korean authorities had a responsibility to ensure the safety of the mine.

“Poor post-management of inactive mines often leads to river water contamination,” said Kim.

“If North Korea is actually digging up uranium there, they are obliged to do a number of things to verify the safety of the mines and to secure them.”