Russia yesterday warned of a potential “manmade catastrophe” if North Korea restarts an aging plutonium reactor to boost its stockpile of nuclear weapons, after US experts spotted steam rising from the Yongbyon facility.
The reactor, which was completed in 1986, is outdated and North Korea could suffer a major disaster if it is restarted, a Russian diplomatic source told the Interfax news agency.
The warning came after researchers at the US-Korea Institute said on Wednesday that satellite images taken on Aug. 31 showed plumes of white steam rising from a building next to the reactor.
“Our main concern is linked to a very likely manmade disaster as a consequence. The reactor is in a nightmarish state, it is a design dating back to the 1950s,” the Russian source said. “For the Korean Peninsula this could entail terrible consequences, if not a manmade catastrophe.”
Meanwhile, the US envoy on North Korea said the reported restart of the reactor would be “a misstep on the part of North Korea.”
“If it turns out that these reports are true that North Korea has restarted the five-megawatt plutonium reactor, this would be a very serious matter,” Glyn Davies told reporters after meeting Japanese foreign ministry officials in Tokyo.
The Russian diplomat speaking to Interfax said he did not know for sure whether North Korea had relaunched the facility mothballed in 2007.
“It is obvious that some works are being conducted, and for a long time at that. According to some signs, steps were indeed being taken to relaunch it,” the diplomat said. “We do not have any information that the reactor has been relaunched.”
The image examined by researchers at the US-Korea Institute shows that North Korea “appears to have put the reactor into operation,” researchers Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis wrote on the institute’s blog, 38 North.
However, the white steam picked up by satellites “could simply be testing of the generator,” the Russian diplomatic source cited by Interfax cautioned.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was unable to verify whether the reactor had been restarted since North Korea has barred its inspectors since 2009.
“We are aware of the media report,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.
“The agency continues its monitoring of the DPRK’s [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] nuclear activities by available means, such as satellite imagery analysis,” he said.
The restart of the plutonium reactor would undermine years of efforts by the international community to stall and roll back North Korea’s pursuit of an advanced nuclear deterrent. It would also call into question the effectiveness of the current policy of non-engagement with Pyongyang.