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North Korea almost done building new reactor. Is that a big deal? (+video)

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(Read caption) Yongbyon experimental light water reactor
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Is North Korea almost done building a new, experimental light water reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear facility? Two well-known US nonproliferation experts think that’s the case. In an analysis of commercial satellite imagery posted at the North Korea-centered blog 38 North, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nick Hansen of Stanford University conclude that Pyongyang “is in the final ‘clean up’ stage of construction at the reactor site.”

Overhead photos show North Korean workers put a dome over the reactor containment building last year. They started moving large equipment into the building in the fall.

Pipes for a cooling system that draws water from a nearby river have been put in trenches and covered up, according to Mr. Lewis and Mr. Hansen. A nearby electrical sub-station is close to ready. The site’s large crane has been dismantled and taken away. Workers haven’t yet made final electrical and water connections.

The key now is whether a nearby uranium enrichment facility has produced fissile material that North Korea has managed to fabricate into fuel rods.

“If the North has solved these problems and fuel is indeed available, the facility could begin a start-up period by mid-2013 that precedes the facility becoming fully operational,” Lewis and Hansen write.

Would this be a big deal?

Yes. First, let’s back up a bit and provide background. Earlier this year, North Korea announced that it would restart a shuttered 5 MWe gas graphite reactor at Yongbyon, some 55 miles north of Pyongyang. That’s a different plant than the one Lewis and Hansen analyze in their post.

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