Steam Seen Coming Out of N. Korea Reactor in Sign of Likely Restart

Global Security Newswire Staff
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Global Security Newswire Staff
Sept. 12, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
1 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
1 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
1 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
1 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.