WASHINGTON – North Korea could be ready within weeks to start operating a light-water reactor that has triggered growing concern amid the regime’s vows to build more nuclear weapons, researchers said Wednesday.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said that satellite pictures taken in March and April appeared to show that North Korea was doing final work inside the reactor and cleaning up after completing construction.
If North Korea has been truthful in its boasts that it has been enriching uranium at the nearby Yongbyon nuclear complex since 2010, it may already have enough material to power the reactor for several years, the think tank said.
“This would mean start-up activities could begin in the coming weeks,” researchers Jeffrey Lewis and Nick Hansen wrote on the institute’s blog, 38 North. The estimate for the start time is earlier than previous assessments.
“The key factor . . . is the availability of reactor fuel,” the institute said in a report.
North Korea would still need nine months to a year for the plant to become fully operational, they said.
The light-water reactor would ostensibly provide energy to the resource-poor nation. But the reactor could also be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, which North Korea has vowed to bolster.
Light-water reactors are best-suited for electricity generation. The reactor might be adapted to produce plutonium for weapons, but North Korea already has what is known as a gas-graphite reactor, which provides an easier option for making bomb fuel.
North Korea revealed an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility in 2010 to provide fuel for the light-water reactor — a development that caused international alarm because of the potential for the same centrifuges to be reconfigured to produce highly enriched uranium, giving the North another means of creating fissile material for weapons.
The researchers also voiced concern about safety, considering the questionable level of North Korea’s expertise.
“As the Fukushima event in Japan demonstrated, even a well-designed, constructed and tested plant must be capable of addressing unanticipated contingencies such as natural disasters. It is unclear whether the North can deal with such events,” they wrote.
“For example, if defective fuel is inserted into the core, the cladding may fail to maintain physical integrity and release fission products possibly into the pressure vessel and containment building, forcing a shutdown,” they wrote.
The latest findings came after North Korea under young leader Kim Jong Un vowed to attack the United States with nuclear weapons as part of a showdown with Washington and South Korea.
North Korea carried out its third nuclear test in February. It first revealed work on the light-water reactor when U.S. scientists went on a private visit to the Yongbyon site in 2010.
South Korea described the researchers’ report as “worrying” and said it is necessary to confirm whether the facility is really a light-water reactor.