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

Global Security Newswire Staff
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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.”

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