N Korea sets off nuclear alarm

INTERNATIONAL alarm over North Korea's nuclear programme has increased after its scientists began removing plutonium-laden fuel rods from an experimental reactor without United Nations inspectors being present. The United States fears the material could be used to make nuclear weapons, but US officials said yesterday that it appeared North Korea had not tried to hide it.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors found this week that some of the 8,000 fuel rods had already been extracted from the core of an experimental reactor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex. The UN agency said this was a 'serious violation' of agreed safeguards which would be reported to the Security Council, and called on North Korea to stop the removal immediately.

There were signs yesterday, however, that Pyongyang had avoided all-out confrontation with the international community. US officials said the inspectors had reported that the spent rods had been stored in cooling tanks of water, and that there did not appear to have been any attempt to take plutonium away for possible use in nuclear weapons. 'There is no diversion, according to inspectors. We are hopeful,' said one American source. The US has repeatedly warned that it would seek sanctions against North Korea if it sought to develop nuclear arms.

The IAEA said its inspectors could still carry out meaningful checks of the fuel rods which remain in the reactor, and was seeking urgent talks with Pyongyang to discuss arrangements to do so. But doubts remain about the material already removed. North Korea says it can be stored and inspected later, but the agency said any measurements not made during the actual discharge of the reactor's core would be 'of no value'.

Chu Chang Jun, North Korea's ambassador to China, confirmed yesterday that the fuel replacement had started without IAEA supervision, but claimed there was no threat. 'We should have replaced the fuel rods a long time ago for technical safety,' he said. Discharge of the core had been delayed during talks with the US, which he said had promised to give North Korea a light water reactor, but the breakdown of negotiations had forced Pyongyang to go ahead; it would take about two months to replace the rods.

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