North Korea halts plutonium reprocessing

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The Independent Online

Plutonium reprocessing at an important site in North Korea has apparently ceased, US officials said yesterday.

It is unclear why the North Koreans stopped work at their reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. But officials believe that they either chose to stop, or had technical problems at the plant, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The plant turns spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. It is the only such plant North Korea is known to have. There is also a nuclear reactor at the site which produces the fuel rods.

Officials did not say precisely when activity at Yongbyon stopped, although the site was reported to be in action last month.

The North Koreans restarted the reactor in February. They are also thought to have accessed some 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been in storage.

It is unclear whether North Korea could have reprocessed enough spent fuel to make a nuclear weapon. Washington estimates that they already have one or two.

Experts had previously estimated that running the plant at full speed could make five or six new nuclear weapons out of the 8,000 rods at the rate of one a month. But officials had previously described the activity at Yongbyon as small in scale. The North Koreans claimed to have stopped reprocessing the rods in April, but Western intelligence officials were sceptical.

American officials said yesterday that they believed North Korea was developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. The missile has not been tested.

The missile may have a range of 9,400 miles, within the range of any US state or territory.

Until now, the limit of North Korea's missile range was thought by US defence experts to have been Alaska or Hawaii for larger, more powerful weapons and the western half of the United States for smaller weapons.

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