September 12, 2013 - 13:59 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Steam has been seen rising from North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, suggesting that the reactor has been restarted, a U.S. institute said, according to BBC News.
The colour and volume of the steam indicated that the reactor was in or nearing operation, the institute said.
Pyongyang vowed to restart facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex in April, amid high regional tensions. The reactor can produce plutonium, which North Korea could use to make nuclear weapons.
Analysts believe North Korea already possesses between four and 10 nuclear weapons, based on plutonium produced at the Yongbyon reactor prior to mid-2007, when the facility was closed down.
The report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, Sept 11, was written by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses satellite imagery to monitor developments in North Korea.
"The reactor looks like it either is or will within a matter of days be fully operational, and as soon as that happens, it will start producing plutonium," report author Jeffrey Lewis told the BBC.
"They really are putting themselves in a position to increase the amount of material they have for nuclear weapons, which I think gives them a little bit of leverage in negotiations, and adds a sense of urgency on our part," he added.
Yukiya Amano, the chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, said Thursday the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is aware of reports that North Korea may have restarted a reactor capable of producing plutonium for weapons, but does not yet have a "clear understanding" of the situation there.
"As we don't have inspectors there, we don't have anything for sure," Amano told reporters in Vienna, according to Reuters.
The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Joseph Macmanus, said the IAEA board of governors this week "reiterated overwhelmingly" that North Korea must cease all nuclear activities immediately and refrain from taking any steps to restart its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.
Amano, attending a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board, declined to say whether the IAEA, which follows the North's nuclear program via satellite images, had seen any steam coming from the site. Asked whether it was a worrying development, he said: "As we don't have a clear understanding (of the situation), we cannot make a comment."
IAEA inspectors have not been allowed into North Korea to undertake verification of its nuclear activities, including the research reactor there, since April 2009, agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.
"The agency continues its monitoring of the (North's) nuclear activities by available means, such as satellite imagery analysis," Tudor said.
In a November 2010 report following a visit to Yongbyon, U.S. scientist Siegfried Hecker said that based on what he saw he believed North Korea could "resume all plutonium operations within approximately six months" at Yongbyon, then shut down, if so inclined.
North Korea closed the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal.
The cooling tower at the facility was later destroyed, but then the disarmament deal stalled, partly because the U.S. did not believe Pyongyang was fully disclosing all of its nuclear facilities.
In 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon to Hecker, who said that while the facilities appeared to be for electricity generation purposes, it could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium for bombs.