(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has secretly and quickly built a new facility to enrich uranium, according to an American nuclear scientist, raising fears that the North is ramping up its nuclear program despite international pressure.
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The scientist, Siegfried Hecker, said in a report posted Saturday that he was taken during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex to a facility with a small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. The facility had 2,000 recently completed centrifuges, he said, and the North told him it was producing low-enriched uranium meant for a new reactor.
Hecker wrote that his first glimpse of the centrifuges was "stunning."
"Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us," Hecker wrote.
He described the control room as "astonishingly modern," writing that, unlike other North Korean facilities, it "would fit into any modern American processing facility."
The facilities appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea's nuclear arsenal, said Hecker, former director of the US Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and a regular visitor to the North. He said he saw no evidence of plutonium production. But, he said, the facilities "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel."
Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make atomic bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program. Hecker's findings were first reported in The New York Times
On Sunday, the US State Department announced that the Obama administration's special envoy on North Korea planned to visit South Korea, Japan and China, starting Sunday.
Stephen Bosworth's trip comes as new satellite images show construction under way at North Korea's main atomic complex. That, combined with reports from Hecker and another American expert who recently traveled to Yongbyon, appear to show that Pyongyang is keeping its pledge to build a nuclear power reactor.
North Korea vowed in March to build a light-water reactor using its own nuclear fuel. Hecker, and Jack Pritchard, a former US envoy for negotiations with North Korea, have said that construction has begun.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said that Bosworth was to arrive in Seoul on Sunday for a two-day trip aimed at discussing the North's nuclear weapons program. The US State Department said in a statement that Bosworth will then travel to Tokyo and Beijing.
Light-water reactors are ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but the power plant would give the North a reason to enrich uranium. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear bombs.
While light-water reactors are considered less prone to misuse than
heavy-water reactors, once the process of uranium enrichment is
mastered, it is relatively easy to enrich further to weapons-grade
North Korea said last year it was in the final stage of enriching
uranium, sparking worries that the country may add uranium-based weapons
to enlarge its stockpile of atomic bombs made from plutonium. Experts
say the North has yielded enough weaponized plutonium for at least a
half dozen atomic bombs.
Enriched uranium would provide the North with an easier way to build
nuclear bombs compared to reprocessing plutonium. Uranium also can be
enriched in relatively inconspicuous factories that are better able to
evade spy satellite detection, according to US and South Korean experts.
Uranium-based bombs may also work without requiring test explosions like
the two carried out by North Korea in 2006 and 2009 for plutonium-based
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