The reactivation of an old plutonium-production reactor could boost North Korea's bargaining position if six-party aid-for-denuclearization negotiations ever resume, a U.S. expert wrote Thursday in a column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Siegfried Hecker, the former longtime head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the restart of the Soviet-era reactor has made any potential new nuclear negotiations with North Korea significantly more complex, as representatives to talks will have to figure out a solution for the reactor and its spent fuel rods.
"Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must remain the goal, but it is a more distant one following these new developments," Hecker wrote.
The five-megawatt graphite reactor was disabled under a now-defunct denuclearization agreement. Pyongyang announced this past spring it would reoperationalize the reactor so it could produce plutonium for the country's nuclear weapons program. Satellite photographs in recent months have indicated the reactor is operating again.
The "most likely technical scenario" is Pyongyang will run the reactor for two years with a full-load of 8,000 fuel rods and then extract approximately 22 to 26 pounds of plutonium a year later, according to Hecker, adding the cycle could be repeated multiple times. Hecker is one of the last foreign nuclear weapon scientists believed to have been granted a tour of North Korea's Yongbyon complex, where the reactor is located.
"We can expect Pyongyang to gain one bomb's worth of plutonium per year as long as it stays on this path," Hecker said. "Such a production rate does not constitute a game changer, but it would give North Korea more plutonium to test in order to refine its nuclear devices to fit on its missiles."
The six-nation talks involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States have not been held since December 2008. The negotiating framework proposes to reward North Korea's gradual shuttering of various nuclear programs with timed infusions of foreign-economic assistance and international-security guarantees. Pyongyang has said it is ready to resume the six-party talks. However, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say they will not return until the North first offers a serious display of its commitment to irreversible denuclearization.
Former State Department East Asia specialist Evans Revere in a new paper for the Brookings Institution recommended the Obama administration "expand and intensify current sanctions" against Pyongyang in order to induce the Kim Jong Un regime into changing its thinking on nuclear weapons. Revere recently participated in semiformal Track 1.5 talks with North Korean officials on options for reviving the six-party talks.