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North Korea Breaks Seals on 8,000 Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods

North Korea Breaks Seals on 8,000 Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods

Posted December. 23, 2002 22:32,   


North Korea has removed the seals and surveillance cameras installed to monitor the storage facilities containing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that had been closely watched by the IAEA. A couple of days ago, the North also eliminated all IAEA`s inspection devices set up at the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.

What makes the latest move of North more serious is the fact that the fuel rods have nothing do to with generation of electricity and can produce plutonium, which in turn can produce nuclear weapons. Therefore, the situation is spinning more and more out of control.

So far, it is believed, North Korea has dismantled surveillance devices at two of its 5 nuclear facilities whose operation had been frozen under the 1994 arms control accord in Geneva. The five facilities are the 5MW nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, the storage facility containing 8,000 spent fuel rods, the 50MW nuclear reactor whose construction was supposed to be completed sometime between 1995 and 1996, the 200MW reactor in Taechon, Pyongbook, and the radiochemical laboratory in Yongbyon.

The IAEA announced on Sunday, "North Korea has taken additional actions to hinder the operation of the inspection devices on the storage facility of the nuclear wastes containing the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. The storage facility is the number one target of our inspection activities."

IAEA`s Secretary General, Mohammed Elbaradei criticized, "The rods contain a considerable amount of plutonium. Therefore, it is a matter of grave concern in connection with the nonproliferation. The action North Korea took this time poses a profound hindrance to IAEA`s inspection activities to prevent the conversion of the nuclear material extracted from the spent fuel rods into production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosives."

Experts believe that the 8,000 fuel rods could produce 25kg of plutonium #239, which in turn could suffice to produce at lease three nuclear warheads, reported the AFP.

The facility whose seals were broken this time is in vicinity of the 5MW nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. The IAEA had double-sealed the spent fuel rods in stainless containers, and stored them in water tanks with surveillance cameras rolling over them.

One senior South Korean official said, "The IAEA bound 400 stainless containers and hang them on ropes connected above water in such a way that, if a person other than an inspector tried to temper with them, the trace must be left behind. It were these seals that North broke this time. The fuel rods, however, are still in the water tank."

North Korea`s state-run Central Agency reported on December 22 that North Korean regime started removing IAEA`s seals and surveillance cameras that had been set up under the Geneva accord. The agency announced that this action was caused by the United States` discontinuance of the fuel oil shipment.

At first, North Korea, through its Foreign Ministry spokesperson, announced that it would reactivate its nuclear program. Then, on December 21, it removed the seals and cameras on the 5MW reactor in Yongbyon.

Yesterday, South Korean government, through the comments of the Foreign Ministry, demanded, "The additional action on the part of North Korea may increase tension over the Korean Peninsula, and will amplify the concern of the international community over the nonproliferation issue."

The New York Times, citing a senior Bush administration official, reported yesterday that the United States government might consider "non-diplomatic" reactions if North got closer and closer to production of a nuclear weapon.

US State Department spokesperson also warned on Sunday that this action had caused a more serious consequence.

In the meanwhile, the Japanese government defined the removal of the seals as a violation of the 1994 accord, and protested against North Korea`s action via its embassy in Beijing.

sechepa@donga.com spear@donga.com