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N. Korean nuke test could impact volcanic activity at Mt. Paekdu

All Headlines 11:21 February 08, 2013

SEOUL, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean nuclear test could influence volcanic activity at Mt. Paekdu, which can lead to serious environmental consequences, local experts said Friday.

The warning comes as the communist country has threatened to conduct a "high level" atomic weapons test at its Punggye-ri nuclear complex that lies just 110 kilometers from the 2,744-meter-high dormant volcano.

The North said last month, right after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the launch of a long-range rocket on Dec. 12, that it will build up its nuclear deterrence to thwart any attempts by foreign powers to encroach on its sovereignty. The country conducted two nuclear tests at Punggye-ri in the northeastern part of the country in 2006 and 2009.

Yoon Sung-ho, a geological scientist at Pusan National University, said any impact on Mt. Paekdu will be determined by the explosive power of the nuclear test.

"A nuclear test will probably exert a direct or indirect impact on volcanic activity at the mountain, and this is worrisome," said the scholar, who is considered a leading expert on Mt. Paekdu in South Korea.

Yoon has been warning for some time that there has been a steady rise in sulphur dioxide being released by the mountain, which is a tell-tale sign of an expanding magma chamber.

The mountain, which sits on the North Korean-Chinese border releases magma and erupts two or three times every 100 years with the last minor explosion having occurred in 1925.

Related to the size of the possible nuclear blast, most experts said that it will be larger than the first and second tests that have been estimated to have been "small" bombs. North Korea watchers speculated that the next test may involve the detonation of a so-called boosted fission weapon with the yield reaching around 20 kilotons, or roughly about the size of the Nagasaki bomb dropped by the United States on Japan in World War II. A kiloton is equivalent of 1,000 tons of conventional explosives.

The 2006 test had an explosive yield of about 1 kiloton, while the second is estimated to have reached 2-6 kilotons. The Korea Meteorological Administration said the first test resulted in a magnitude 3.6 tremor, with the second rising to a magnitude of 4.4.

Related to the nuclear blast affecting the mountain and the surrounding region, Shin Young-soo, a former ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker, as a member of parliament's Construction and Transportation Committee, claimed that another test will certainly affect the volcanic activity at Mt. Paekdu and may even lead to a massive eruption.

He claimed in 2010, based on data provided by China's earthquake monitoring office, that underground magma flowed near the Punggye-ri test site.

Other local volcanologists and seismic experts have discounted Shin's concerns, although all agree that a larger explosion could pose environmental problems.

If Paekdu experiences a massive explosion, it could send harmful volcanic ash 10 kilometers into the atmosphere affecting air traffic in Northeast Asia, disrupting business activities in the region and endangering people living near the mountain in both North Korea and China.

yonngong@yna.co.kr
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