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Satellite appears to show NKorea nuke building

world Updated: Nov 19, 2010 11:50 IST

New satellite images show construction under way at North Korea's main Yongbyon atomic complex, apparent proof that Pyongyang is making good on its pledge to build an experimental light-water nuclear reactor, according to a private American security institute.

North Korea vowed in March to build such a reactor using its own nuclear fuel, and two American experts who recently visited the North have reportedly said that construction has begun. Light-water reactors are ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but such a 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. North Korea is pursuing an arsenal of atomic weapons, so all its nuclear projects are of intense interest to its neighbours and to the United States. Pyongyang carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, drawing international condemnation and UN sanctions. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security on Thursday released commercial satellite images from Nov 4 that show a rectangular structure being built, with at least two cranes visible at the complex. It estimated North Korea was constructing a 25 to 30 megawatt light-water reactor. The institute based its estimate on information from the recent trip to Yongbyon by Siegfried Hecker, former director of the US Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, and Jack Pritchard, a former US envoy for negotiations with North Korea.

It said Hecker told the institute "that the new construction seen in the satellite imagery is indeed the construction of the experimental light-water reactor."

The institute said the amount of low-enriched uranium needed for a 25 to 30 megawatt reactor could vary "depending on the design of the reactor and whether it will be optimised for electricity production or weapon-grade plutonium production." Officials at South Korea's foreign ministry didn't immediately respond to attempts for comment.

The new satellite imagery comes as the North presses for the resumption of international nuclear disarmament talks it quit last year. South Korea and the United States have said North Korea must show its sincerity before those talks can continue. Washington promised the energy-starved North two light-water reactors under a 1994 deal meant to freeze North Korea's plutonium program. The deal, however, collapsed in 2002 when the United States accused North Korea of running a secret uranium enrichment program. After seven years of adamant denials, North Korea said last year that it was in the final stages of uranium enrichment a process that would give it a second way to build nuclear bombs in addition to the plutonium program.

The Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, reported Thursday that Pyongyang was building a light-water reactor as part of its plan to revive its economy ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il.