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North Korea Could Begin Activating New Reactor Within Weeks: Think Tank

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, shown in April 2012. Analysis of recent satellite photographs suggests the North could be within weeks of beginning start-up for a new experimental light-water reactor at Yongbyon that could be used to produce weapon-usable plutonium (AP Photo/GeoEye). North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, shown in April 2012. Analysis of recent satellite photographs suggests the North could be within weeks of beginning start-up for a new experimental light-water reactor at Yongbyon that could be used to produce weapon-usable plutonium (AP Photo/GeoEye).

WASHINGTON -- North Korea might be positioned to within weeks begin activating its new experimental light-water reactor, which could be used to produce fissile material for the country's nuclear weapons program.

A new analysis by the website 38 North examined satellite photographs taken as recently as early April and concluded that "the North now appears to be putting the finishing external touches on the reactor and may be completing work inside the building as well." How soon North Korea can begin the nine to 12 month start-up process for the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex will largely depend on whether it already has available adequate reactor material to operate the facility, according to report authors Jeffrey Lewis and Nick Hansen.

Pyongyang one month ago declared it would focus more of its nuclear sites on weapons work, including a uranium enrichment plant that it had previously claimed was dedicated to peaceful atomic energy production. "We will act on this without delay," the North's Atomic Energy General Department said at the time.

The light-water reactor studied by 38 North appears chiefly designed for energy production but there are fears it will also produce plutonium for fueling warheads. The South Korean Defense Ministry said more study is required to determine the nature of the reactor and its capacity to produce fissile material, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Definitively discerning the reactor's true purpose and capabilities is difficult as the North does not allow outside inspections of its nuclear program. International Atomic Energy Agency monitors were last inside Yongbyon in April 2009. A group of foreign specialists, including former Los Alamos National Laboratory chief Siegfried Hecker, were given a tour of the nuclear complex in late 2010 but the international community since then has had no access to the site.

The reactor theoretically could each year generate enough weapon-usable plutonium to fuel between one and four bombs, according to estimates from different experts.

North Korea is in a hurry to have the reactor up and running. The Stalinist regime began construction in 2010 and surveillance satellites in the years since have documented a rapid pace of work.

38 North, which is managed by Johns Hopkins University, noted in its Wednesday analysis that a number of suspected machinery pieces and large containers that were photographed in September 2012 were no longer visible two months later, suggesting they had been moved inside the reactor structure. The reactor's water cooling system also looks to be almost finished, according to the report.

"Most of the current work is probably being done inside, but they are not yet finished installing the reactor's water and electrical connections," Hansen and Lewis wrote.

Assuming the uranium facility seen by Hecker in 2010 has been operating in recent years, "it may have produced sufficient low-enriched uranium that can be used to power the [experimental light-water reactor] for several years," according to 38 North. "This would mean start-up activities could begin in the coming weeks." Should that go as planned, the facility could be "fully operational during the first half of 2014."

In addition to nuclear-weapon worries there are fears about a possible atomic accident that could spew poisonous radioactive emissions across a wide geographical area. "Because North Korea lacks experience in designing, engineering, manufacturing and operating light-water reactors, it may also run into difficulties operating the ELWR, which raises serious safety concerns," the analysis reads.

There is the possibility that North Korea, like Iran with its light-water reactor at Bushehr, will find it difficult to activate the facility. During the start-up phase, fuel will have to be brought to the plant and a number of physics assessments will have to be conducted prior to a full systems check. "Given Pyongyang's lack of experience in building this type of reactor, delays are quite possible during this phase," 38 North said.

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