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Expert: North Korea could restart Yongbyon nuclear plant in six months to a year

April 2nd, 2013
06:28 PM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

After weeks of bellicose rhetoric, North Korea announced Tuesday that it will restart a nuclear reactor it had shut more than five years ago.

Siegfried Hecker, one of the world's most prominent nuclear scientists, was one of the last Western observers to visit the Yongbyon nuclear complex. He believes that the North Koreans could restart the plant within six months to a year.

“They would have to rebuild the cooling tower, they would also have to prepare the fresh fuel to put in, but in my opinion it could be done in six months to a year’s time,” Hecker told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview on Tuesday.

Hecker is the former director of United States' Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Amanpour reported from Yongbyon in 2008, which North Korean officials made a big show of shutting down – the cooling tower was blown up in front of television cameras.

She asked Hecker if the North Koreans had deceived the world at that time.

“No, I believe they were actually serious in what they called the ‘disablement’ of those facilities,” Hecker told Amanpour, adding that while they have always kept the contingency to be able to restart it.

“So they went ahead and disabled it and not dismantled it,” he said. “So for the last five years they’ve had it mothballed, but at any of those times they could have actually had the technical capacity to restart it.”

In his best estimate, the North Koreans have perhaps four to eight bombs worth of plutonium, which Hecker based on his visits to the country and discussions with North Korean specialists.

“Right now they cannot build anymore plutonium bombs, because they’ve reprocessed all the plutonium – there’s none in the pipeline. “I think that’s why they said they’d restart the reactor.”

If they did restart it, within that sixth-month-to-year time period that Hecker laid out, he believes the best the North Koreans could do is to build one bomb’s worth of fissile material per year.

“However, it would take them about three years before they’d actually be able to reprocess more. So let’s say in three years time, then they could then potentially build one more bomb’s worth a year. That’s it.”

Because of that Hecker, says he was neither surprised by North Korea’s announcement on Tuesday, nor does he believe that it fundamentally changes the nuclear threat.

Hecker does not believe that there are any other plutonium reactors or reprocessing plants in North Korea; but when it comes to enriched uranium capabilities, which he calls “the second path to the bomb,” he is not sure of the Hermit Kingdom’s capacities.

“In 2010 they showed me a very modern facility, but they said it was dedicated to making reactor fuel. However, I’m quite convinced that they do have a covert uranium enrichment facility somewhere and in most likelihood they’ve made at least some highly enriched uranium for bombs.”

In other words, it is possible that the facility that Hecker saw in 2010 could be changed from making reactor fuel into making highly enriched uranium.

The bombs that North Korea fielded so far are quite primitive, according to Hecker. He said they are not sufficiently militarized to put on a missile and unable to reach the United States.

He said they could reach South Korea, but not using a missile. “In most likelihood they’d have to deliver that in a van, boat or by airplane.”

He believes North Korea would be unlikely to pull it off.

While he emphasized that he is a technical person, not a policy person, he did offer up some advice to the world: He believes North Korea is not going to give up the bomb, so the world should focus on diplomacy to make sure things don’t get worse, which is exactly what North Korea is signaling they might attempt to do with Tuesday’s announcement.

He suggested diplomacy focus on what he calls “The Three No’s:” Make sure North Korea doesn’t build any more bombs; prevent them from surpassing any improved bomb technology that they currently have; and don’t allow them to export any bombs or technology.

You can read more about Hecker's work regarding North Korea at his website.

Filed under:  Latest Episode • North Korea • South Korea
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. rexedie

    ive seen korean construction first hand..... shody at best.... i wonder how safe is a plant that's been sitting idle for 5 years. with any luck they'll blow it up...trying to figure where to plug it in...

    April 3, 2013 at 5:21 am | Reply
    • darren

      You mean North Korean construction right. Because South Koreans construct many capable machines such as dockside gantry cranes that bring the containers off of ships carrying your precious Nikes and iphones , as well as Kias and Hyundai cars. Both very popular and reliable cars actually. Not that I drive them but many do. Ah what's the point in even saying this, judging by the kind of posters on here I'll just get flamed with my logical facts and proof.

      April 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  2. Ravi Bakchod

    It came to me when Gangnam Style got 50 million hits on youtube. And I thought what the Neighbor "OPPA" might be making of it? Then we seen it is not since a year and we have numerous threats from NK. What does it means for Kim to provoke and threat South Korea like that. What is the psyche that is behind such threats. It's like a arrogant terrorist with Bomb-Vest saying "I am gonna do it". He is like [who] lives by his own rules and [who] would not abide by the imperialist rules and systems," a UN unto himself.Even his questions would sound like statements because his "pride wouldn't allow him to make anyone feel that he doesn't know about something. Even if NK gets nuked or bombed it will wish to gets himself killed by not listening to China or US, thus taking away US and China's power to save it. "Grief [coming] out as anger is what KIM is all about. He grew up to it, his grand dad and his dad eventually. Kim is like a child who refused to grow up. He doesn't abide by the laws of world or so called laws of imperialists. If he has physical strength, he uses it, if he doesn't, he becomes cynical and blames Imperial powers all the time. "Murphy's law will prevail BUT Kim Jong Un will be remembered as Howard Roark of World's Politics and in history"

    April 3, 2013 at 6:16 am | Reply
  3. Hao So

    KJU is a puppet dancing on strings. He's no more "in charge of" the DPRK than I am.

    April 3, 2013 at 6:56 am | Reply
  4. doneky butt

    That Amanpour is one hot dude, er..chick

    April 3, 2013 at 8:42 am | Reply
  5. jogee

    When are you gonna stop with all this lies.Remember Iraq,then Iran? now Korea? stop stop stop.

    April 3, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  6. Elena Iraclidou

    If North Korea dismissed the southern Koreans five years ago with intention to restart the nuclear power production once again, would that mean it would employ northern or southern workers? would Southern workers agree to this or would the northern? and for what reason?

    April 3, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  7. Daph18

    I feel sorry for the people of NK. The leader "Kim" is not leading the country. If they want to start a war do it and get it over with. The world would like to see a unification of both the North and the South Korea. The quicker they (NK) start the war the quicker the unification will come. This is not brain science. The "Kim" statues will come tumbling down and history has written the "Kim" dynasty as tyrants and not caring for their own people.

    April 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      You got it right . kim jong un too young to run the country with 21 millions population in hunger . Insteadly to worry on weapony . Event china unable to compare weapony with US . Don't be stupidly to piggy .

      April 5, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  8. Neil McCauley

    If all it takes is one phone call to Kim from Pres. Obama, to stop this insanity, and save billions of dollars and thousands of lives, why isn't that being done?

    April 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  9. wesley

    NK need sane leadership....Kim should stop threatening his neighbors in China n Russia who deemed to NK's allies should prevail on Kim's administration.

    April 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  10. Daph18

    Invite the guy to a Lakers game and take him to Disneyland and it will be all fixed up.

    April 4, 2013 at 2:07 am | Reply


    April 4, 2013 at 9:06 am | Reply
  12. cranky john

    we could overrun North Korea and rename it North Kazungi in about 15-20 min and have the Kim family in one of their own prison camps within 1 hr

    April 4, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • darren

      Hey! You are so sure, so when they invade you can lead the charge to the capital!

      April 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  13. Marutinandan Plastic Machinery

    Congrats your restart the plant.Very Nice .

    April 5, 2013 at 5:36 am | Reply
  14. Samie

    Hey dear I want to know why north Korea want attack the south Korea ?

    April 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  15. savannah

    I want to know why north korea wants to attack us so much not little facs bout what happened .or what people have said come on let me know

    April 14, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
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    April 25, 2013 at 1:50 am | Reply

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