WASHINGTON — A recent satellite image appears to show North Korea is restarting a plutonium reactor, in a move that could raise renewed international alarm over its nuclear weapons program, a U.S. research institute said yesterday.
The 5 megawatt reactor at the Nyongbyon nuclear facility was shuttered in 2007 under the terms of a disarmament agreement. Pyongyang announced plans in April to restart it amid a litany of threats toward the U.S. and South Korea after it faced tougher international censure over its latest nuclear and rocket tests.
North Korea has since toned down its rhetoric and stepped up diplomacy with rival South Korea, but yesterday’s finding by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is a sign that the regime of Kim Jong Un is pressing ahead with its nuclear program.
Without access to the secretive facility, it is difficult to say with certainty that the reactor has restarted, but the institute says an Aug. 31 commercial satellite image shows white steam rising from a building next to the reactor. The building houses steam turbines and electric generators that are driven by heat generated by the reactor. The color and volume of the steam is consistent with the electrical generating system being readied to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation, the institute says.
The analysis was written by Jeffrey Lewis and Nick Hansen and provided to The Associated Press ahead of publication on the institute’s website, 38 North.
When North Korea announced its plans in April, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that restarting the plutonium reactor would be “extremely alarming” but added: “There’s a long way to go between a stated intention and actually being able to pull it off.”
Department spokesman for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Jason Rebholz, said yesterday that North Korea’s nuclear program remains a matter of “serious concern.” Rebholz reiterated the call for Pyongyang to comply with its previous commitments and abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs. He did not directly address the reactor report, saying the department does not comment on intelligence matters.