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Highly enriched uranium is the key to N. Korea’s nuclear capability, says expert

Highly enriched uranium is the key to N. Korea’s nuclear capability, says expert

Posted September. 02, 2021 07:30,   

Updated September. 02, 2021 07:30


With North Korea’s Yongbyun 5MWe reactor appearing to have restarted, Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Voice of America in an interview on Tuesday that North Korea is trying to gain an upper hand over the U.S. with its plutonium production. It is uranium enrichment that constitutes the essence of North Korea’s production of fissile materials, he added.

The former deputy director-general argued that plutonium produced in the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is just around seven to eight kilograms per year, with which only one or two nuclear weapons can be made, falling far short of achieving a significant shift in strategic balance. “Assuming that North Korea gradually ramped up uranium enrichment activities in Yongbyon and elsewhere and used it to produce fuel for the experimental light water reactor (ELWR), approximately 540 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) could have been produced by the end of 2020,” said Mr. Heinonen. He estimated that North Korea is capable of producing annually 150 to 160 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, the amount enough to make six uranium nuclear bombs.

The intelligence authorities in Washington and Seoul postulate that enrichment facilities at Yongbyon and Kangson are capable of extracting as much as 80 to 100 kilograms of HEU a year. Though less than the amount estimated by former deputy director-general Heinonen, this figure suggests the possibility that as much as 240 to 300 kilograms of HEU could have been additionally produced, capable of building around nine to twelve uranium nuclear bombs, in the course of the period from 2018 to 2020, during which the appeasement strategy was adopted with respect to North Korea. Adding 280 kilograms of HEU believed to be possessed by North Korea in 2017, the current stockpile of HEU is expected to reach as much as 520 to 580 kilograms.

“In view of the recent annual report published by the IAEA, which pointed out that the enrichment facilities in Kangson and elsewhere are currently in operation, North Korea’s HEU stockpile is estimated to exceed 600 kilograms by the end of this year. Should this trend continue, North Korea will possess more than one ton of nuclear weaponry four to five years later,” said the military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sang-Ho Yun ysh1005@donga.com