North’s reactor ‘nearly complete’

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North’s reactor ‘nearly complete’

North Korea appears to have almost completed a new light-water nuclear reactor that could be started by the first half of next year, a U.S. Web site specializing in satellite imagery analysis said.

The Web site, 38 North, by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, said Wednesday that North Korea is “nearing completion of an experimental light-water reactor” and the construction seems to be in its final stage based on a series of satellite images taken between 2011 and March.

“Pyongyang appears to be in the final ‘clean-up’ stage of completing the experimental light-water reactor,” the Web site said. “If the North has fuel on hand, it will then need to conduct a number of activities during the start-up period, which normally takes nine to 12 months for commercial power reactors before moving to a full power test and the facility becomes operational.

“Under a best-case scenario, the reactor could become fully operational by the first half of 2014,” it said.

The journal posted a string of commercial satellite images to show the North’s “rapid progress” in building the reactor located in the city of Yongbyon, North Pyongan Province.

The most significant detail was a dome placed on a reactor hall seen in an image from November 2012. The journal said that in a previous image from March 2012, some containers and facilities were seen near the reactor building, which did not have a dome. Eight months later, some of the containers were gone and a dome crowned the building.

A cooling system was also apparently installed. A March 2011 image showed two trenches leading to a river. In a November 2012 shot, the trenches were covered over, probably after pipes were laid, and a new pipe appeared next to the reactor along with what seemed like a water storage tank. The new pipe was buried in an image from this January in which the water tank was built up.

In an image from this February, an electrical substation and power line towers were under construction. A month later, the substation was nearing completion and the reactor building was completed.

Still, the online journal was cautious in predicting that Pyongyang would operate the reactor soon because a key factor is whether the regime has uranium-enriching technology to produce fuel.

North Korea vowed on April 2 to restart idle nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, withdrawing its promise to shut them down in 2007. It was protesting ongoing joint military exercises by the South and U.S. The South Korean government is still skeptical about news of the new reactor.

“Although some facilities are seen in satellite images, we still don’t know whether the generator or other facilities are working inside,” a South Korean government official told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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