US fears N Korea could get 50 bombs a yeargreenspun.com : LUSENET : Current News - Homefront Preparations : One Thread
REUTERS[ WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2002 06:50:48 AM ]
WASHINGTON: North Korea could churn out enough plutonium to build up to 50 to 55 nuclear weapons a year if all three of its frozen nuclear reactors entered operation in coming years, a US government official said on Tuesday.
The issue is critical to world security, partly because North Korea has been developing long-range missiles possibly capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
Washington accuses Pyongyang of being the world's biggest peddler of missiles and missile production technology. North Korea on Tuesday accused hawks in the United States of pushing the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war and said its armed forces were up to the task of defeating any enemy.
In a sign of the urgency the issue has taken on, US Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a fourth straight day pressing Japan and other countries to boost pressure on North Korea, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
"The secretary reiterated what we (have) said before -- that we are not anxious to escalate this problem but we are not going to be blackmailed," he said. "If North Korea is looking for US support, this is not the way to do it."
The reclusive communist state's defense minister said his country had "modern offensive and defensive means capable of defeating" any enemy. He spoke after US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday US armed forces could fight two wars at the same time and win.
South Korea, which would be in the front line of any conflict on the peninsula and favors dialogue to end the crisis, expressed frustration with its unpredictable neighbor.
"South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the European Union are all strongly calling on North Korea to abandon the nuclear program. But the North is not listening now," outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung told his Cabinet.
President-elect Roh Moo-hyun who was elected last Thursday on a campaign criticizing the tough US stance on North Korea, met the ambassadors of China, Russia and Japan on Tuesday and spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi by telephone.
North Korea, denounced by US President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran, set alarm bells ringing over the weekend by removing UN monitoring equipment at a nuclear reactor capable of yielding weapons-grade plutonium.
Restarting a 5-megawatt plant at its Yongbyon complex, as Pyongyang has taken steps to do, would spin off about 6 kg (13 pounds) a year of weapons-grade plutonium, said the US official who declined to be identified.
That would suffice for just one nuclear bomb, given the rule of thumb that it takes about 5 kg (11 pounds) of plutonium per weapon. Yongbyon is about 55 miles (88 km) north of Pyongyang.
The output from two unfinished reactors -- a 50-megawatt unit at Yongbyon and a 200-megawatt plant at nearby Taechon -- could be added to generate as much as a combined total of 275 kg (600 pounds) of plutonium a year from all three plants, the official said, or enough for 50 to 55 weapons, depending on how they are configured.
"It would take several years for them to complete construction of those reactors, but if they complete the construction, that's the potential," said the official.
The United States has urged Pyongyang not to restart any of its frozen nuclear facilities. A State Department official said on Tuesday it had no indication Pyongyang had gone beyond dismantling U.N. monitoring devices to actually reactivate the 5-megawatt plant at Yongbyon.
Keeping the North from extracting bomb-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods has been a top US foreign policy priority for years -- one that brought the Clinton administration to the brink of war before a landmark 1994 nonproliferation deal.
By that time, Pyongyang had probably already recovered enough plutonium to produce two nuclear weapons, the CIA has concluded.
Under the 1994 deal, North Korea agreed to freeze the 5-megawatt reactor plus the partially built 50- and 200-megawatt plants. Also frozen were a reprocessing facility and a fuel-rod fabrication plant at Yongbyon.
In exchange, Washington agreed to provide a $5 billion package to include two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors and 500,000 metric tons of of heavy fuel oil a year until the first light-water reactor was built.
The North began removing U.N. controls last weekend from its nuclear reactors and, perhaps most ominously, from a large supply of weapons-grade fuel at Yongbyon.
In Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, said on Tuesday North Korea was continuing to dismantle seals and disable surveillance devices meant to police its compliance with deals to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
"They have already done three facilities and now they are working on the fourth," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told Reuters.
North Korea says it has a right to possess nuclear weapons if it chooses and insists that Washington sign a nonaggression pact as a basis for talks on their differences.
Pyongyang acknowledged to US officials in October it had been pressing ahead with a secret highly-enriched uranium program in violation of the 1994 agreement and other nonproliferation pacts. That prompted a US-led consortium to cut off fuel oil shipments to the North, which said it was resuming its nuclear program to generate electricity.
Having taken possession of about 8,000 spent fuel rods, Pyongyong could separate enough plutonium for about five nuclear weapons in six months to a year "or perhaps quicker" once it fired up the reprocessing plant, said David Albright, a nuclear physicist who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Albright, co-editor of Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle and a member of the IAEA's Iraq monitoring team from 1992 to 1997, said the frozen reprocessing plant itself could be back in business in one to three months.
-- Anonymous, December 24, 2002