WASHINGTON: A US nuclear scientist saw hundreds of centrifuges in North Korea this month, sources familiar with the matter said on Saturday, buttressing the case that Pyongyang has a uranium enrichment program giving it a second way to obtain fissile material for atomic bombs.
Washington has believed since 2002 that Pyongyang had such a program but the apparent sophistication of its effort could ignite fresh debate over how to deal with North Korea’s unpredictable leadership and whether to resume talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.
North Korean officials told the expert, Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, they had 2,000 centrifuges operating but the US team that visited the country was unable to verify that, said the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.one source said,“But it certainly looked like an operating facility (to the team),”
Another source said Hecker was “stunned” by how modern and sophisticated the uranium enrichment facility was at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex.But Hecker was unable to spend enough time there to establish whether the plant was designed to produce only low-enriched uranium needed to make fuel for a power plant or the highly enriched uranium needed for bombs, he said.
Hecker was told the facility was producing 3.5 percent enriched uranium, the level needed for a power plant. To produce bomb-grade fissile material, uranium must be enriched to more than 90 percent.It was not immediately clear why North Korea showed Hecker the facility,The source said.
Separately, the US State Department said Stephen Bosworth, an envoy responsible for policy toward North Korea, left on Saturday on a trip to South Korea, Japan and China for consultations on North Korean issues.