Progress Is Reported on Nuclear Pact

The cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, shown in use in photo at left, is being disabled under an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
The cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, shown in use in photo at left, is being disabled under an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. (State Department)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

North Korea has made significant progress in disabling its nuclear facility in Yongbyon but has hesitated at providing key details about the extent of its nuclear programs, including whether it has weaponized the plutonium harvested from the reactor, according to U.S. officials.

Under a six-nation agreement, North Korea is supposed to finish disabling the facility and to provide a detailed declaration of its nuclear activities by Dec. 31, but officials acknowledge both deadlines will slip.

Technicians disabling the plant have completed or nearly completed seven of the 11 key tasks expected under the agreement. A key factor in the delay is that officials discovered that water in a cooling pond for spent fuel rods is contaminated, a potentially dangerous situation that North Korea was willing to ignore to meet the deadline. But U.S. officials objected and insisted that the water must first be filtered.

In the case of the declaration, large gaps exist between what Washington expects and what Pyongyang wants to deliver, officials said. "You are dealing with a country that is not instinctively given to handing out information," one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

President Bush last week sent a private letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, urging him to provide a complete declaration and laying out the elements the United States needs to see to keep the delicate process going. North Korea, via its ambassador at the United Nations, told the State Department on Wednesday that North Korea wants to stick to the agreement as long as the United States fulfills its commitments.

"I got his attention with a letter," Bush told reporters yesterday. "And he can get my attention by fully disclosing his program, including any plutonium he may have processed and converted into whatever he's used it for. We just need to know. As well, he can get our attention by fully disclosing his proliferation activities."

The Yongbyon facility includes a five-megawatt reactor, a fuel fabrication facility and a reprocessing laboratory for making bomb-grade material. Yesterday, North Korean officials began removing irradiated fuel rods from the reactor, a major step that continues a process that experts say will go well beyond the "freezing" of the reactor negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994.

When that agreement collapsed in 2002, after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, North Korea was able to restart the plutonium facility within three months. Under the current agreement, experts say, it could take as long as a year for North Korea to restart the facility.

Four key steps in disabling the plant have been completed, and three are nearly completed, administration officials said, citing reports from U.S. observers at the site.

At the reactor, the concrete bottom of its cooling tower has been broken through, rendering it unusable. A secondary cooling loop has also been severed. At the reprocessing plant, workers have removed machinery that helped transfer spent fuel rods into hot cells and have severed steam-line valves used to heat the reprocessing areas of the building. In the fuel fabrication facility, workers are close to removing casting furnaces and uranium metal reduction furnaces necessary to shape the fuel rods.

David Albright, president of the nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security, said that during the negotiations, North Korea was anxious that there be no language suggesting that disablement would make the facility completely unusable, but he said the steps taken so far are impressive. Albright, who co-wrote a paper earlier this year outlining possible options for disabling the facilities, said removing the machinery needed to transfer fuel rods into hot cells is important because the cells are necessary to prevent exposure to radiation.

Albright said that bursting through the concrete of the cooling tower was visually symbolic -- wisps of vapor from the cooling tower appear in most satellite photographs of Yongbyon -- but the hot water could still be dumped directly in a nearby river if North Korea were unconcerned about possible ecological damage.

One lingering question is what should be done with fuel rods prepared for a never-completed 50-megawatt facility. Although those rods do not fit in the five-megawatt reactor, they could be reshaped unless they were bent.

U.S. officials outlined several key gaps in the declaration. First, the United States is seeking information on North Korea's past proliferation activities, especially any help it may have provided to Syria for a facility attacked by Israel in September. North Korea has indicated that it would assure that it is not currently exporting its expertise, but does not want to dwell on past practices.

Second, the United States wants to know whether any plutonium has been weaponized. North Korea simply wants to say how much plutonium it has produced.

Third, U.S. officials want a complete list of nuclear-related facilities but suspect that North Korea will provide an incomplete list.

Finally, the United States is seeking clarity on North Korea's uranium enrichment activities. The United States tracked purchases of material and equipment that could be used in such a program, but North Korea wants to say only what happened to the materials and how they are being used or whether they were smelted. It does not want to disclose its reasons for purchasing the equipment.

"To say what they were purchased for in the first place would involve acknowledging something they are not quite prepared to acknowledge," the official said. "We need to know what's been going on there."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company