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Nuclear Expert Says North Korea Could Start Reactor in Six Months

  • Mi Jeong Hibbitts

Satellite images of the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, Sept. 20, 2011 and Feb. 3, 2012.

Satellite images of the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, Sept. 20, 2011 and Feb. 3, 2012.

North Korea could restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in four to six months and produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two years, according to a former U.N. Nuclear monitoring official.

“If North Korea starts the reactor by the end of this year, they will have enough material for additional nuclear bomb by the end of the next year,” Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the VOA Korean Service.

This means, Heinonen said, that the North will be able to produce enough nuclear material for one nuclear weapon every year from then on.

On Tuesday, North Korea announced it would restart the plutonium reactor it had shut down in 2007. The announcement came after Pyongyang's Workers’ Party vowed to keep nuclear weapons, describing them as the “nation’s life.”

The five megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon facility was used to produce fissile material for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009.

Heinonen said the exact time frame for re-starting operations at the Yongbyon reactor is difficult to determine because information about the facility is sparse. The IAEA’s latest on-site information on the North’s nuclear activity dates back four years.

In April, 2009, the North hastily called off all cooperation with the U.N.’s nuclear monitoring watchdog, ordering all inspectors at the Yongbyon facility to leave immediately. The inspectors then removed all seals and switched off surveillance cameras at the site.

Heinonen also warned that the North might “modify the light water reactor following the example of Syria,” referring to the Dair Alzour reactor site destroyed by the Israelis in 2007.

An IAEA report said Dair Alzour appeared to be a reactor of North Korean design that did not need a cooling tower. The report also said the IAEA had been provided with information that it was built with help from North Korea.

Heinonen, former head of the nuclear watchdog’s safeguards department, said he could not rule out the possibility that North Korea had additional, undisclosed nuclear reactors.

“I think there has to be at least one more place in North Korea where they have done research and development,” he said.

Heinonen is now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He left the IAEA in August 2010 after serving 27 years at the agency.

(Written in English by Jeewon Lee.)