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N. Korea could have already started harvesting plutonium from spent fuel: U.S. think tank

All Headlines 02:22 April 06, 2016

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, April 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korea could have already started reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to harvest weapons-grade plutonium in a process that could give Pyongyang enough fissile material for up to three nuclear bombs, a U.S. research institute said Tuesday.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a think tank in Washington that specializes in the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues, raised the possibility, citing an unidentified "government official who monitors the situation closely."

The report came a day after 38 North, a U.S. website focusing on North Korea issues, also raised the possibility of the North reprocessing spent fuel, saying recent commercial satellite imagery showed "exhaust plumes" from a thermal plant used to heat the reprocessing facility.

These assessments are in line with a statement that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made last month that the North had restarted its main five-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and has since run it for long enough to harvest plutonium "within a matter of weeks to months."

"If North Korea has indeed started, or even partially completed, this plutonium separation process, the question becomes: how much plutonium for nuclear weapons could it separate? The amount of plutonium separated will depend on the amount of plutonium produced in the 5-megawatt reactor since it restarted in mid-2013," ISIS said.

The reactor is believed to have produced about 3-4 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium through the end of the summer of 2014. Though the reactor has run intermittently since mid-2014, it could have produced an additional 2-3 kilograms of plutonium.

"In total, the 5-megawatt reactor could have produced an estimated 5-7 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium since its 2013 restart," ISIS said. "This is enough plutonium for one to three nuclear weapons, assuming 2-4 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per weapon."

If confirmed, such reprocessing would represent yet another provocative act that the North has been engaged in recently in defiance of international pressure over its nuclear and missile programs.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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