North Korea sees light-water reactor this decade

North Korea says it will have a power-generating nuclear reactor “in the near future” after vowing last year to begin enriching uranium to fuel such a facility.

The country said in June that it would begin enriching uranium — a simpler and harder-to-detect method of building nuclear weapons than reprocessing plutonium, a capability it has already mastered.

That announcement on June 13, less than a month after the North conducted its second underground nuclear test in May, followed seven years of denial that it had a uranium program.

North Korea “will witness the appearance of a light water reactor power plant relying on its own nuclear fuel in the near future in the 2010s,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Monday. It did not mention uranium and provided no specific date for when such a facility might begin operating.

Building a light-water reactor, ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, gives the country a premise to enrich uranium, which at low levels can be used in power reactors, but in nuclear bombs at higher levels.

The report comes as China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States are trying to coax the North to return to negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear programs. North Korea last year quit the so-called six-party talks, which began in 2003, but has hinted it could return.

On Tuesday, Japan said it would likely extend economic sanctions against North Korea, implemented in 2006 to punish the regime for a missile test.

“Basically, I don’t see any reason for not extending” the sanctions, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano told a news conference.

The current sanctions are to expire on April 13. They include an import ban and tight restrictions on exports to Pyongyang, as well as a ban on selling luxury goods including pricey beef, caviar, alcohol and cars, in accordance with a U.N. resolution.

North Korea says nuclear weapons are a deterrent against the U.S., which it routinely accuses of plotting to topple its regime. Washington, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has repeatedly said it has no such intention.

Uranium is readily available in North Korea. The country has said it has an estimated 26 million tons of natural uranium deposits, of which about 4 million tons can be economically extracted.

The North’s Foreign Ministry said in the June statement that the country had achieved enough success in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide fuel for a light-water reactor.

North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen atomic bombs. The country conducted its second atomic test last year, drawing tighter U.N. sanctions.

The North’s plutonium, which is not a naturally occurring material, was extracted over a number of years from spent fuel rods at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Associated Press