The CIA has revised an earlier intelligence estimate and now believes North Korea has begun reprocessing spent nuclear-fuel rods into plutonium for weapons, U.S. officials said.
Reprocessing the 8,000 stored nuclear fuel rods would be a key indicator that Pyongyang has abandoned past commitments to freeze its nuclear-arms program.
A review of intelligence on the nuclear-rod reprocessing began in April after North Korea’s representative to nuclear talks with the United States and China in Beijing stated that the reprocessing was nearly finished.
The CIA review included re-examining intelligence that showed North Korea had imported plutonium secretly from Russia or a former Soviet republic during the 1990s. It could not be learned whether that intelligence was confirmed.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the review said the new estimate states that “some” reprocessing could be under way.
“If it is, we don’t believe it is anywhere near completed,” the official said.
A senior Asian diplomat also said new intelligence reports indicate that the fuel reprocessing is under way, although not completed.
In April, the CIA reported that North Korea was not separating the fuel, although trucks that could move the rods to a reprocessing facility had been seen at the storage facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
No reprocessing, however, had been detected before Li Gun, the North Korean negotiator at the Beijing talks last April, stated that it was nearly finished.
Mr. Li also told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in an aside during the talks that North Korea planned to export nuclear weapons or add to its existing nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials view the statement as a threat and say Pyongyang will not blackmail the United States.
The United States wants to expand any new talks to include representatives of South Korea and Japan.
The fuel rods were taken from a 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and stored in cannisters in a fuel pond that had been sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency according to the terms of a 1994 agreement between North Korea and the United States to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for economic and energy aid.
The storage program was completed in April 2000.
North Korea announced last year that it had a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. It then expelled international inspectors who had been monitoring the nuclear weapons freeze and restarted the small 5-megawatt reactor.
The communist government is believed to have enough plutonium for two or three nuclear devices. The plutonium in the fuel rods would give Pyongyang enough for five or six more weapons.
Reprocessing takes place at a large facility where the rods are chopped up and dissolved in nitric acid. The material is then treated with a mixture of tributyl phosphate and kerosene in several steps, and a small amount of weapons-grade plutonium is produced.
In December, U.S. intelligence agencies detected North Korea’s purchase from a Chinese company of 20 tons of tributyl phosphate — one of the first indicators that the North Koreans were preparing to reprocess the spent fuel rods.
Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department adviser, wrote in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the North Koreans could take the fuel rods to a cave or other hidden location to conduct the reprocessing.
“Work in this kind of makeshift environment would be even more dangerous and definitely more time-consuming — it would involve handling much smaller batches of rods than the reprocessing plant and using ‘hot cells’ to extract the tiny fraction of plutonium in the spent reactor fuel,” Mr. Alvarez stated.
The North Koreans will need anywhere from “several months” to more than a year to produce the plutonium, he stated.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Congress on April 30 that North Korean officials told the United States that they had reprocessed all the fuel rods in storage.
“We can’t establish that as a matter of fact with our intelligence community, but they said they did it. That is their assertion. That is their position,” Mr. Powell said.
On Wednesday, according to reports, China and Russia delayed U.N. Security Council action on a U.S.-sought condemnation of the North Korean nuclear-weapons program.
The administration also is pushing South Korea to stop helping to build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea — one provision of the 1994 Agreed Framework aimed at halting the North Korean nuclear program.
Asked about the reactor-building effort yesterday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: “This is obviously a subject of continuing discussions.”
North Korea has said it would consider any imposition of sanctions as a declaration of war, and South Korea is resisting U.S. pressure to halt the new reactors.