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North Korea Seen Quickly Building Atomic Reactor

(Nov. 15) -The first concrete foundation is laid in 2002 for a since-abandoned nuclear reactor project on North Korea's northeastern coast. North Korea is achieving rapid progress in the construction of a new light-water reactor site, according to an analysis of satellite photographs taken this month (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon). (Nov. 15) -The first concrete foundation is laid in 2002 for a since-abandoned nuclear reactor project on North Korea's northeastern coast. North Korea is achieving rapid progress in the construction of a new light-water reactor site, according to an analysis of satellite photographs taken this month (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).

Recent photographs taken from space show that North Korea is quickly building a new light-water reactor, with construction almost finished on the site's barrier walls, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Nov. 14).

The photographs, taken earlier in the month and provided by DigitalGlobe Analysis Center, reveal the reactor's turbine room and other supporting buildings are almost finished, according to former U.S. nuclear negotiator Joel Wit, who published the satellite photographs on his website, 38North.org.

The expert estimated that finishing the reactor's housing could require between six months and a year. As the reactor site does not yet contain the technology associated with nuclear power generation, the plant might not go on line for an additional two to three years, he said.

The rapid clip at which work on the reactor is proceeding supports North Korea's recent assertion that it possess all of the resources and expertise necessary to domestically construct atomic reactors, according to the Post. When U.S. nuclear weapon experts were given a tour of the site at the Yongbyon nuclear complex a year ago, not much progress had been made in building the reactor (see GSN, Nov. 15, 2010).

It is not apparent whether the light-water reactor is intended for actual atomic energy generation, as North Korea has claimed, or if it is meant to mask efforts to generate fissile material as the United States and other governments suspect. One year ago, Pyongyang revealed for the first time a uranium enrichment program that it asserted was aimed at producing reactor fuel.

"It's a nice cover story, potentially, for their highly enriched uranium program," Wit said.

The Stalinist state must also acquire or generate the uranium dioxide fuel pellets needed to run the reactor (Chico Harlan, Washington Post, Nov. 14).

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korean senior representatives to the six-nation negotiations aimed at North Korean denuclearization met in Vienna on Monday to address prospects for relaunching the moribund talks, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official told the Yonhap News Agency (Yonhap News Agency, Nov. 15).

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