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North Korea has already begun construction at a shuttered plutonium reactor that it is vowing to restart and it could be back in operation sooner than expected, a U.S. research institute said Wednesday.
Pyongyang announced its plans Tuesday, the latest in an almost daily string of threats toward the U.S. and South Korea that have ensued since it faced international censure over its nuclear and missile tests.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has analyzed recent commercial satellite imagery of the Nyongbyon nuclear facility, where the reactor was shut down in 2007 under the terms of a disarmament agreement. A cooling tower for the reactor was destroyed in 2008.
The analysis published on the institute's website "38 North" says that rebuilding the tower would take six months, but a March 27 photo shows building work may have started for an alternative cooling system that could take just weeks.
"Pyongyang may be poised to prove wrong conventional wisdom that it will take months to restart its reactor, and in the bargain it is also showing us that they mean business by accelerating the process of producing more material for nuclear weapons," said Joel Wit, 38 North editor and a former U.S. State Department official.
North Korea also said it would restart a uranium enrichment plant. Both facilities could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday that restarting the plutonium reactor would be "extremely alarming" but added: "There's a long way to go between a stated intention and actually being able to pull it off."
The new construction at the reactor began in the six weeks between February 7 and March 27, when another aerial image showed no building going on, 38 North says.
The analysis says the construction could be aimed at connecting the reactor to a pumping station that serves an adjacent light-water reactor that is still under construction. The light-water reactor still appears more than a year away from becoming operational but its pumping station appears from aerial imagery to be complete, it says.
But restarting the plutonium reactor would also depend on the availability of fresh fuel rods. According to 38 North, North Korea is believed to have a supply of rods, but many of them may need adapting for use in the reactor.
The North's plutonium reactor began operations in 1986 but was shut down as part of international nuclear disarmament talks in 2007 that have since stalled. Once it is up and running, the reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year — enough for one or two bombs, the analysis says.
The North has already conducted three underground nuclear tests. Plans to restart the reactor and ramp up production of atomic material underscore worries about its progress in developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could target the United States. It is still believed to be years away from achieving that.