Uranium Traces Found on N. Korean Tubes

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

U.S. scientists have discovered traces of enriched uranium on smelted aluminum tubing provided by North Korea, apparently contradicting Pyongyang's denial that it had a clandestine nuclear program, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources.

The United States has long pointed to North Korea's acquisition of thousands of aluminum tubes as evidence of such a program, saying the tubes could be used as the outer casing for centrifuges needed to spin hot uranium gas into the fuel for nuclear weapons. North Korea has denied that contention and, as part of a declaration on its nuclear programs due by the end of the year, recently provided the United States with a small sample to demonstrate that the tubes were used for conventional purposes.

The discovery of the uranium traces has been closely held by senior U.S. officials concerned that disclosure would expose intelligence methods and complicate the diplomatic process. North Korea has steadfastly refused to open up about its past practices, simply asserting that it is not engaged in inappropriate activities. However, the uranium finding will force U.S. negotiators to demand a detailed explanation from Pyongyang.

Ross Feinstein, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, declined to comment on the uranium discovery, as did officials at the State Department.

North Korea has made rapid progress on disabling its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, which produces a different type of fuel: plutonium. But now U.S. officials have encountered resistance from Pyongyang on the crucial next steps in the six-nation agreement to end North Korea's nuclear ambitions. A top State Department official, Sung Kim, is in Pyongyang this week to discuss the declaration with North Korean officials.

"We expect a complete and accurate declaration from North Korea," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters yesterday during a news conference with the Canadian foreign minister. "If we are to move forward, and if we are to move forward on all of the benefits that would come to North Korea through the successful completion of this second phase, we really must have an accurate declaration."

In addition to the possibility that the tubes acquired traces of uranium as part of an active enrichment program, sources said the tubing could have been contaminated by exposure to other equipment. Pakistan, for instance, has acknowledged providing North Korea with a sample centrifuge kit, and so the tubes might have acquired the enriched uranium from the Pakistani equipment. In 2003, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency detected traces of enriched uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility and ultimately determined that the material came from Pakistani equipment provided by a nuclear smuggling network.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the equipment did not need to be in the same room but could have picked up the uranium traces from a person who was exposed to both sets of equipment. He said that several Energy Department laboratories have highly sophisticated methods of detecting the nuclear material from items that had been thoroughly decontaminated.

"There is a real art in extracting enriched uranium from samples," Albright said. The labs can detect micrograms of enriched uranium, which he said is "way beyond what any normal radiation detector would pick up." However, he said, such minute quantities could easily have come from other sources.

Ultimately, he said, it might be possible to match up the enriched uranium discovered on the North Korean tubes with information known about the Pakistani material discovered in Iran to determine whether the enriched uranium on the tubes had been inadvertently transferred.

U.S. intelligence analysts first concluded in July 2002 that North Korea had embarked on a large-scale program to produce highly enriched uranium for use in weapons, with a key piece of evidence being North Korea's purchase of 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia in June 2002. The Bush administration's accusation that Pyongyang had a clandestine program led to the collapse of a 1994 agreement that had previously frozen the Yongbyon reactor.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium provide different routes to building nuclear weapons. After the 1994 agreement fell apart, the North Koreans were able to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods -- which had been held in a cooling pond and monitored by U.N. inspectors -- to acquire enough plutonium for as many as 10 weapons. A uranium program would have required Pyongyang to build a facility with thousands of centrifuges to obtain the highly enriched uranium needed for a weapon.

North Korean officials have indicated to U.S. officials that any experimentation with uranium enrichment did not work out and so any materials acquired abroad were used instead for conventional purposes. But the North Koreans have refused to explain why the purchases were made in the first place, preferring to show that the materials are not being used in any illicit program, sources said.

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