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(LEAD) N. Korea set to restart Yongbyon reactor: U.S. institute

2013/06/04 14:07

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON/SEOUL, June 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea looks ready to resume the production of weapons-grade plutonium at its main nuclear site in Yongbyon, a move expected to make efforts to revive the six-way denuclearization talks more difficult, according to a U.S. institute.

New commercial satellite imagery shows North Korea is making "important progress" in activating the 5-megawatt gas-graphite reactor mothballed since 2007 under a deal with South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said Monday.

"Pyongyang is nearing completion of work necessary to restart the 5 MWe reactor used to produce North Korea's supply of weapons-grade plutonium," it said in a report carried on the website 38 North. "The 5-MWe reactor may be 1-2 months from start-up. But the availability of fresh fuel rods to power the reactor remains uncertain."

   North Korea seems to have essentially finished repairing the cooling system needed to restart and operate the Soviet-era reactor, it added.

The communist nation destroyed the cooling tower in 2007 in a nascent step to implement the six-party agreement.

Rather than rebuilding the dismantled cooling tower, the North Koreans connected the secondary cooling system to a pump house that was built for its new Experimental Light Water Reactor situated next to the old reactor, the institute said.

In April, North Korea announced plans to restart the nuclear reactor.

It carried out a nuclear bomb test in February.

Some experts predicted it would take six months to a year before the reactor could be up and running since the cooling system needed to be reinstalled.

Once operational, they say, the facility will likely be able to produce about 6 kilograms of plutonium per year for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

The last round of six-way talks was held in late 2008.

On speculations that the 5 MWe will be restarted in a couple of months, an official at Seoul's Ministry of Unification said there is a need to wait and see if such developments will occur, hinting there may be some technical issues that must be handled first.

He said, however, that since the country's leadership has already stated that it will get the reactor on line again, it is only be a matter of time before it becomes operational.

"Such a move constitutes a serious development because it will lead to the country acquiring more fissile materials that can lead to more nuclear weapons testing and miniaturization of devices," the official who declined to be identified said.