Sunday, November 21, 2010
North Korea Working With Uranium at Vast New Plant - NYTimes.com
WASHINGTON — North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist earlier this month a vast new facility it secretly and rapidly built to enrich uranium, confronting the Obama administration with the prospect that the country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb.
Whether the calculated revelation is a negotiating ploy by North Korea or a signal that it plans to accelerate its weapons program even as it goes through a perilous leadership change, it creates a new challenge for President Obama at a moment when his program for gradual, global nuclear disarmament appears imperiled at home and abroad. The administration hurriedly began to brief allies and lawmakers on Friday and Saturday — and braced for an international debate over the repercussions.
The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.
American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, had foreign help and evaded strict new United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed to punish its rejection of international controls.
A delegation of American experts that included Dr. Hecker has already reported that it confirmed satellite photographic evidence of another new advance by the North — a light-water reactor being built on the site of a facility the country had dismantled as part of an agreement with the international community to end its nuclear weapons program.
Dr. Hecker did not initially mention the surprising discovery of the uranium enrichment operation as he left North Korea. He privately informed the White House a few days ago.
The White House is clearly eager to use the new information to show that North Korea, in violation of United Nations mandates, continues to make significant progress toward advancing its nuclear program, even though it remains under international sanctions for its past violations.
American officials were sent to China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, the other members in the moribund “six-party talks.” The Obama administration also hopes to persuade China, by far North Korea’s most important source of political and economic support, to put more pressure on the government of Kim Jong-il, which has shown signs of becoming more militaristic as it undergoes a leadership transition.
China has been hesitant to cut off trade or fuel to the North, and it appears determined to support its longtime, if difficult, ally during its succession process. But in the past China has taken modest steps to support a tougher line when North Korea has tested nuclear weapons or missiles, defying international commitments.
Dr. Hecker said he was forbidden from taking pictures during his tour of the uranium plant on Nov. 12, and was not allowed to verify North Korean claims that it was already beginning to produce low-enriched uranium. He also said he had doubts that North Korea would fulfill its promise to build a light-water reactor to utilize the fuel. “There are reasons to question whether that’s true,” he said.
There are two routes to a nuclear weapon: obtaining plutonium from the spent fuel produced by a nuclear reactor, and enriching uranium to weapons grade.
Since the 1950s, North Korea pursued the first path, and its arsenal of weapons was manufactured from fuel harvested from a small nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. That produced enough for roughly a dozen weapons, but the facility was decrepit, and under an agreement with the Bush administration it was shut down in 2008, with television cameras running as its cooling tower was blown up.
But meanwhile, the North was already well down the second path, uranium enrichment, much the way Iran has pursued its nuclear program. Like Iran, North Korea insists the fuel is intended for a yet-to-be-built experimental reactor to make electricity.
American officials, though, say they think the intent of the enrichment program is to make weapons fuel. Since the North has blocked international inspections, it may be impossible to monitor how much fuel it has made, or if it could be used to produce or improve atomic bombs.