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(LEAD) N. Korea restarts nuke reactor in Yongbyon: US institute

2013/09/12 14:54

(ATTN: RECASTS dateline; ADDS Seoul gov't, source's comments, background info in last 7 paras)

WASHINGTON/SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to have restarted a plutonium-producing reactor in Yongbyon, a U.S. institute said, citing a recent satellite image.

Since its April announcement of plans to put the five-megawatt reactor back into operation, related work has progressed relatively rapidly there, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said on its website, 38 North, which specializes in the communist nation.

"Satellite imagery from August 31, 2013 shows white steam rising from a building near the reactor hall that houses the gas-graphite reactor's steam turbines and electric generators," it said in a report on Wednesday.

The reactor generates electricity by using the heat from the nuclear reaction in the core to create steam that spins the turbines, it added.

The reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year, according to the report.

The secretive North, which has conducted three nuclear tests, is believed to have already produced weapons-grade plutonium to make about a dozen nuclear bombs.

It is also developing uranium enrichment program as a second track.

In Seoul, the South Korean government said Thursday it is keeping tabs on the North's nuclear activities.

"We cannot confirm (the relevant facts) ... But the government is taking a close look at the relevant moves," Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.

A diplomatic source in Seoul also said the government has been closely monitoring Pyongyang's moves on its nuclear programs, but said there has not "any hard evidence on the resumption" to his knowledge.

"North Korea's recent nuclear activities are neither new nor unexpected. After all, North Korea has hinted at the moves and there have been some signs," he said, adding Seoul and Washington "have factored in such circumstances in devising their policy toward Pyongyang."

   North Korea has been reaching out to both South Korea and the U.S., with China scurrying to resume the long-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear program.

Seoul and Washington have shown little appetite to the overtures, while calling on the North to demonstrate its seriousness about denuclearization through concrete actions.

The multilateral forum, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, have been stalled since late 2008.