Steam has been spotted coming out of a turbine facility close to North Korea's old plutonium-production reactor, suggesting the reactor has been restarted, the expert website 38 North concluded in a Wednesday analysis.
Pyongyang declared in April it would reopen the graphite reactor, which was disabled in 2007 as part of a now-defunct denuclearization accord with the United States, for the purpose of expanding its fissile-material production capability.
Commercial satellite photographs taken no earlier than Aug. 31 reveal plumes of white steam coming out of the facility where the reactor's electric generators and steam turbines are located. "The white coloration and volume [of the steam] are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation," the 38 North analysis by experts Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis states.
Once fully operational, the five-megawatt reactor has the ability to generate annually a little over 13 pounds of plutonium, according to 38 North, which is a project of Johns Hopkins University.
North Korea is thought to possess enough plutonium to fuel about six warheads. The country also has a uranium-enrichment program, though no information is available on how much, if any, weapons-grade uranium has been produced.
U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy Glyn Davies on Thursday said while he could not comment on "unconfirmed" reports, "it would be a very serious matter" if the reactor restart was confirmed, Reuters reported.
"It would violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions," Davies said to journalists during a trip to Japan. The U.S. diplomat is in East Asia for talks with his Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts about prospects for relaunching long-frozen multinational negotiations focused on irreversible North Korean denuclearization.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano on Thursday told journalists in Vienna he could not confirm whether the reactor had been restarted, Reuters reported.
"As we don't have inspectors there, we don't know anything for sure," the IAEA director general said. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has not had a presence in North Korea since its inspectors were kicked out of the isolated country in spring 2009.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said it could take three to four years before North Korea produces plutonium that is ready to be used in its warhead program, the New York Times reported.
The reactor would need to be running for two or three years before it could begin generating plutonium. More time also would be required for the used reactor material to reach a low-enough temperature for the plutonium to be separated out from the other nuclear materials produced by the reactor, he said.
News of the possible reactor restart comes as Pyongyang in recent weeks and months has signaled it wants to reengage with the international community after years of isolation and punishing Security Council sanctions imposed on it.
An anonymous U.S. official told Reuters he believed the North likely is restarting its reactor in order to show the world it will not give up its nuclear capabilities in any future negotiations. Pyongyang "wants to create a fait accompli and be accepted as a [nuclear] power and nuclear weapons state," he said.
James Acton, a nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said "restarting it is another slap in the face to the international community, indicating that North Korea has no intention whatsoever of abandoning its nuclear weapons."
Lewis, who co-authored the 38 North analysis, told the BBC that restarting the reactor "gives them a little bit of leverage in negotiations, and adds a sense of urgency on our part," Agence France-Presse reported.
Ploughshares Fund Program Director Paul Carroll, though, said he did not believe the Obama administration would be in a rush to return to nuclear talks just because the reactor might have been restarted. "The reactor isn't really a surprise and its restart was probably factored in by the U.S. administration some time ago," he said in an interview with AFP.
North Korea expert Yang Moo-jin suggested there is a possibility the steam seen near the reactor is all just a contrivance. "It's unclear whether the North has genuinely resumed operating the plutonium reactor or is just making it look like it has done so," he said.
An unidentified Russian diplomatic source told Interfax there are serious safety concerns if the reactor has been restarted, the London Telegraph reported.
"The reactor is in a nightmarish state, it is a design dating back to the 1950s," the source said. "For the Korean Peninsula, this could entail terrible consequences, if not a man-made catastrophe."