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North Korea Seen Restarting Work on Atomic Reactor

An April 30 satellite image of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North has resumed construction of a nuclear power reactor at Yongbyon, according to a Wednesday analysis of pictures taken of the facility from space through late last month (AP Photo/GeoEye). An April 30 satellite image of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North has resumed construction of a nuclear power reactor at Yongbyon, according to a Wednesday analysis of pictures taken of the facility from space through late last month (AP Photo/GeoEye).

North Korea has restarted assembly of an atomic energy reactor, the 38 North website said in a Wednesday analysis that examined satellite pictures taken through late April (see GSN, May 16).

Construction of the light-water reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was believed to have been suspended in December, Reuters reported.

"Pyongyang's construction of an ELWR [experimental light-water reactor] -- which the North Koreans have indicated is the prototype for additional reactors -- as well as a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, is an important indication of the North's intention to move forward with the expansion of its nuclear weapons stockpile in the future," according to the website from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies' U.S.-Korea Institute (see GSN, Jan. 26).

North Korea is also broadly suspected to be preparing to detonate a third nuclear device at the Punggye-ri test site. 

The light-water reactor might go online two to three years, according to 38 North, which said construction of the reactor holding structure appeared to be nearly finished (David Chance, Reuters, May 16).

"The next major step in the construction of this facility will be the loading of the heavy components, such as the pressure vessel, steam generator, and pressurizer, likely through the cylindrical opening in the roof of the reactor containment building," the website analysis says. "Exactly when that process will begin is unclear; it depends on the availability of the heavy components. Recently, the North Koreans stated that those components were being manufactured parallel to the construction of the reactor buildings. The loading process could last six to 12 months" (38 North, May 16).

The Stalinist state claims the reactor will be used to produce civilian atomic power, but there are concerns it will serve as a cover for North Korea to expand its enriched uranium stockpile. 

Plutonium production has stopped in North Korea, Reuters reported, but the nation in late 2010 unveiled the enrichment plant at Yongbyon. Experts have said a new underground nuclear blast might involve highly enriched uranium, rather than the plutonium the fueled tests in 2006 and 2009.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have not been permitted to inspect the reactor or the enrichment facility. As such, the international community has no concrete idea on the size or enrichment level of North Korea's uranium stockpile; uranium must be enriched to around 90 percent to fuel a warhead.

Once the light-water reactor is operating, it could generate enough plutonium to annually produce one nuclear weapon, 38 North said. The combination of the reactor and the enrichment plant could give the North a major boost in its nuclear arms manufacturing efforts (Chance, Reuters_.

The website indicates North Korea resumed work on the reactor no later than March. The halt in construction could have been related to longtime regime leader Kim Jong Il's death in December, though a better explanation is that winter forced work to stop, the Associated Press quoted 38 North as stating.

"Regardless of problems with its missiles and uncertainty about another nuclear test, the North is plowing ahead with this reactor, a key part of Pyongyang's strategy to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal,"  38 North editor and ex-State Department official Joel Wit said (Matthew Pennington, Associated Press/Google News, May 16).

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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