Satellite photographs taken earlier this month indicate building work at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site, seemingly substantiating the aspiring nuclear power's earlier promise to construct a light-water reactor, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Nov. 19).
In March, Pyongyang pledged to erect a light-water reactor that would operate on its own atomic fuel. Two U.S. experts on North Korea came back from a trip to the isolated state this month and said new work at Yongbyon had started.
Light-water reactors are generally intended for peaceful power programs, but such a plant would provide North Korea with a justification for uranium enrichment. The process can be used to produce reactor fuel or, at higher enrichment levels, weapons material.
The regime has used Yongbyon to produce plutonium for its nuclear-weapon program. In 2009, Pyongyang acknowledged that it was finalizing work on uranium enrichment.
The Institute for Science and International Security yesterday published commercial satellite photographs taken on November 4 that depict construction of a rectangular-shaped facility at Yongbyon. The Washington-based think tank assessed the North was building a 25 to 30 megawatt light-water reactor.
Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, who traveled to North Korea this month with one-time U.S. envoy Charles Pritchard, told the think tank "that the new construction seen in the satellite imagery is indeed the construction of the experimental light-water reactor."
The Choson Sinbo, a Japanese newspaper that is editorially friendly to Pyongyang, reported yesterday that the Stalinist state was constructing the experimental reactor in accordance with efforts to reinvigorate the economy prior to 2012, the date ruler Kim Jong Il has set for the country to become a "prosperous" nation.
An ISIS analysis of the images said the quantity of low-enriched nuclear material required for a 25 to 30 megawatt reactor could range "depending on the design of the reactor and whether it will be optimized for electricity production or weapon-grade plutonium production" (Kwang-Tae Kim, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Nov. 19).
The report said the light-water reactor would require several metric tons of LEU material in the core and roughly 1 metric ton of low-enriched uranium each year after that to operate the reactor, Agence France-Presse reported.
"If North Korea wanted to produce weapon-grade plutonium, it could do so by under-irradiating the LEU fuel," ISIS president David Albright told AFP by e-mail.
"It would need to enrich more LEU to do so, but it could do so if it wanted," Albright said (Agence France-Presse/Hindustan Times, Nov. 19).
Pyongyang has endeavored to obtain a light-water reactor for years. Such a reactor is judged to be a low-level proliferation threat, Reuters reported.
Experts doubt the North's capacity to construct the a light-reactor without outside aid. Critical parts are manufactured by sophisticated atomic nations including the United States (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Nov. 19).
As media reports and photographs pointing to North Korean preparations for a third nuclear test pile up, a Japanese government official said yesterday that a blast "could happen any time, given the situation," Kyodo News reported. The statement in the most affirmative remark to date from either the Japanese or South Korean governments regarding the potential for a new test, the Korea Herald reported.
Seoul has sought thus far to minimize speculation of a third nuclear test, "while maintaining close observation" of the North, according to the Foreign Ministry.
North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The second test was conducted by digging tunnels at a test site and closing off the test device within the mountain.
The unidentified Japanese official "acknowledged new activities such as construction of new tunnels" at the site (Shin Hae-in, Korea Herald, Nov. 18).