WASHINGTON • New commercial satellite imagery indicates North Korea has resumed operation of a reactor at its main nuclear site used to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons programme, a US think- tank has said.
Washington's 38 North North Korea monitoring project said previous analysis from Jan 18 showed signs that North Korea was preparing to restart the reactor in Yongbyon, having unloaded spent fuel rods for reprocessing to produce additional plutonium for its nuclear weapons stockpile.
"Imagery from Jan 22 shows a water plume (most probably warm) originating from the cooling water outlet of the reactor, an indication that the reactor is very likely operating," it said in a report. It said it was impossible to estimate at what power level the reactor was running, "although it may be considerable".
A 38 North report last week said operations at the reactor had been suspended since late 2015.
North Korea has maintained its nuclear and missile programmes in violation of repeated rounds of international sanctions. News of the apparent reactor restart comes at a time of rising concern about North Korea's weapons programmes, which could present the administration of US President Donald Trump with its first major crisis.
A report by leading US-based nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker published by 38 North last September estimated North Korea had stockpiles of 32 to 54 kg of plutonium, enough for six to eight bombs, and had the capacity to produce 6kg, or approximately one bomb's worth, a year.
North Korea also produces highly enriched uranium for atomic bombs and would have had sufficient fissile material for approximately 20 bombs by the end of last year, and the capacity to produce seven more a year, that report said.
In a New Year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country was close to test launching an intercontinental ballistic missile and state media has said a launch could come at any time.
Mr Trump's defence secretary plans to visit Japan and South Korea this week and shared concerns about North Korea are expected to top his agenda.