North Korea: White steam over plutonium reactor suggests re-opening of nuclear complex

KA file photo of Yongbyon Nuclear Complex shortly after its shutting down (Reuters)

Satellite imagery suggests North Korea has restarted a research reactor capable of producing plutonium for weapons at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, a US research institute and a US official said on Wednesday.

US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said a satellite image from August 31 shows white steam rising from a building near the hall that houses the plutonium production reactor's steam turbines and electric generators.

"The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation," said the Washington-based institute.

The reactor can produce 6 kg (13.2 lb) of plutonium a year, the institute added.

There was no immediate comment on Wednesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.

A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he believed the North Koreans had restarted the reactor, saying that the amount of steam suggested that it was being tested.

The official said he did not think the North may have done so to force major powers to resume nuclear talks with it in the hopes of extracting concessions, but rather to demonstrate that it will not abandon its nuclear programs.

"It's more straightforward than that," said the official, saying that North Korea "wants to create a fait accompli and be accepted as a (nuclear) power and nuclear weapons state."

"They've no interest in bargaining this away," he added, saying that the only way to counter the North's action would be to "raise the cost to them of taking this path, and increasing multilateral pressure, with China an active participant."

AGED REACTOR

A spokesman for the US State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs declined to respond to the report, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters, but said Pyongyang's "nuclear program remains a matter of serious concern."

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