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N.K. nuclear reactor still operating 'at low power or intermittently': U.S. institute

All Headlines 05:26 March 05, 2016

WASHINGTON, March 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's main nuclear reactor is still operating "at low power or intermittently," a U.S. research institute said Friday, citing recent satellite imagery.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said Feb. 21 satellite imagery shows no water being discharged from the 5-megawatt reactor's discharge pipeline, and no steam venting from the turbine building.

The absence of these two indicators is in line with previous assessments that the reactor has been operating intermittently or at low power, ISIS said, adding that there has been evidence of steam venting or small amounts of water discharge on some dates, and on other dates, no such evidence.

The graphite-moderated reactor has been the source of weapons-grade plutonium for the communist nation. The small reactor is capable of producing spent fuel rods that, if reprocessed, could give the regime enough plutonium to make one bomb a year.

The reactor has provided Pyongyang with weapons-grade plutonium that the regime used in its first three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. The North conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, claiming it successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.

Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a worldwide threat assessment report that the North had restarted the reactor and has since run it for long enough to harvest plutonium "within a matter of weeks to months."

ISIS said it does not believe Clapper was referring to full power operations in the last several months.

Since mid-2014, the reactor appears to have operated at lower power and has been shut down at certain times. Before that, from mid- 2013 to mid-2014, the reactor appears to have operated at near full power, the institute said.

It also said that no external activity is visible at the Radiochemical Laboratory where the North treats spent fuel rods to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons.

"However, the plant also is likely ready to operate, once it receives irradiated fuel," it said, adding that the North has in recent years obtained chemicals, such as exchange resins, in China for the Radiochemical Laboratory and likely has enough for its operation.

ISIS also said that it has located what appears to be a plant that produces carbon dioxide used to cool the nuclear reactor. The gas plant is about 10.5 kilometers south of the reactor, it said, adding that it has been unable to identify the method North Korea uses to make carbon dioxide.

No significant activity has been detected at the site of the light water reactor or its centrifuge plant, while construction continued of a facility believed to be designed to separate isotopes from spent fuel, such as tritium, a key ingredient for hydrogen bombs, ISIS said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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