North Korea has said it plans to finish building a 50-megawatt nuclear reactor in as little as two years, allowing it to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 10 weapons annually, according to the first public report of an unofficial U.S. delegation that visited Pyongyang in August.
The new reactor would represent a tenfold leap in North Korea's ability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, which could give it significant leverage in talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear programs. North Korea tentatively agreed in September to "abandon" its programs, but the talks -- which resume today in Beijing -- must still resolve how quickly Pyongyang gives up its weapons and what types of incentives it will receive.
North Korea is "moving full speed ahead with its nuclear weapons programs," said Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, during a presentation at a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
North Korea currently possesses a working five-megawatt reactor, which it restarted in 2003 after the collapse of a 1994 agreement to freeze its programs. The reactor currently produces five to seven kilograms of plutonium a year. North Korean officials told Hecker the reactor's fuel rods were unloaded in April of this year to extract plutonium; operations resumed in June.
Outside analysts and U.S. officials believe North Korea currently has as much as 53 kilograms of plutonium, enough to produce about 10 or more weapons. Before North Korea restarted its reactor in 2003, the United States believed North Korea possessed enough plutonium for only one or two weapons.
As North Korea's stockpile of plutonium increases, analysts said, Pyongyang can more easily threaten its neighbors and might even be tempted to sell some of it. In 2004, Vice President Cheney warned that an increasingly cash-strapped North Korea might seek to peddle its nuclear technology or fissile material -- including, Cheney said, to terrorist groups.
"They're poised to continue their program, to make more plutonium and to strengthen their deterrents," Hecker said, summarizing his talks with the director of North Korea's nuclear facilities and other senior North Korean officials. "We have to assume that the North Koreans also have made at least a few primitive nuclear devices."
Hecker, along with Stanford University scholar John W. Lewis, visited the Yongbyon nuclear facility in January 2004, when he saw the unfinished 50-megawatt facility was crumbling and in disrepair. During that visit, the North Koreans showed Hecker a jar that they said contained recently reprocessed plutonium from the five-megawatt reactor.
On the most recent trip, Hecker and Lewis did not return to Yongbyon, but they did meet with the facility's director, Ri Hong Sop. The trip was not sponsored by the U.S. government, but Hecker and Lewis have privately briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top aides on their findings.
Ri told Hecker that construction will start soon on the larger reactor. A redesign has been completed and construction workers are preparing to return, he said. Ri did not give an estimated completion date but implied it would be finished in a couple of years, Hecker said, rather than five or six as estimated by some analysts.
North Korea has said it has an urgent need for electric power, and Ri told Hecker the electricity generated by the 50-megawatt reactor would go into North Korea's electrical grid. Hecker said Ri acknowledged that such graphite-moderated reactors are not very efficient for electricity, but make very good weapons-grade plutonium.
The Institute for Science and International Security said that in June 2005, commercial satellite imagery did not show significant construction activity at the 50-megawatt site. But a more recent photograph from Sept. 11 indicated preparation for construction, including restoring a building near the reactor.
David Albright, president of ISIS, said that "age has taken its toll" on the building and that it was optimistic to think that it would be completed in two years. But he said that if North Korea did begin reconstruction, "it would be seen as undermining the agreement to end all nuclear programs."
In an interview last week in Palo Alto, Calif., where Hecker is a visiting professor at Stanford, Hecker said Ri told him that the smaller reactor is operating well at full power. Hecker said that if this is correct, it would probably increase estimates of the plutonium obtained by North Korea.
The North Korean government is refurbishing the fuel fabrication facility to make more fuel for the reactors, Ri said, adding that a few spare rods remain for the smaller reactor and some rods were produced for the 50-megawatt reactor before 1994.
North Korea also has a small research reactor supplied by the Soviet Union that uses enriched uranium fuel. Ri said North Korea has received no new fuel since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, so the reactor is run sparingly to produce isotopes for thyroid cancer therapy.
Some Bush administration officials believe the research reactor must be shut down as part of any accord as it is suspected of being used for small-scale plutonium production. But others have said it could be converted into a low-enrichment fuel facility, in part to keep North Korean scientists employed.