North Korea says new reactor to start soon

SEOUL - North Korea will soon start operating a new home-built nuclear reactor, its official news agency said Thursday in a commentary one year after Pyongyang publicly disclosed the plant.

"The day is near at hand when a light-water reactor entirely based on domestic resources and technology will come into operation in the DPRK (North Korea)," the agency said.

It made the remark in an article deriding US and South Korean suggestions that the North's economy is near breakdown, but gave no details or date.

Pyongyang disclosed the light-water reactor and an apparently functioning uranium enrichment plant to US scientists who visited its Yongbyon nuclear complex on November 12, 2010.

One of them, Siegfried Hecker, said he and colleagues were shown a 25-30 megawatt experimental light-water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction.

Hecker said in a report the target date for operation was said to be 2012, "which appears much too optimistic".

He was also shown a uranium enrichment plant (UEP) with 2,000 centrifuges whose purpose was said to be to produce low-enriched fuel for the new reactor.

Hecker said both facilities appeared designed mainly for civilian nuclear power, but the UEP could readily be converted to produce highly-enriched uranium for bombs and the LWR could be run to produce plutonium.

The United States and its allies are demanding that Pyongyang shut down the uranium enrichment plant before six-nation talks on the North's nuclear disarmament can resume.

The North insists that the talks restart without preconditions.

The country's existing plutonium stockpile - estimated to be enough for six to eight atomic bombs - came from a decades-old gas graphite reactor at Yongbyon that was shut down in 2007 under a six-party accord.

Hecker said in his 2010 report he saw no evidence of continued plutonium production at Yongbyon.