Facility Speeds North's Korea's Nuclear Ability
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
A former director the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs says he is stunned by what he saw in North Korea. Officials in that country showed him a new laboratory for enriching uranium. The plant appears to have been built and put into use in just over a year and a half, since outside inspectors were kicked out of North Korea.
We're going to talk about this with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. He's on the line.
Welcome back to the program, sir.
Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times): Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: So I'm so I'm just reading his report, which is posted online. You can find it, by the way. We've got a link on Twitter at the @nprinskeep.
He describes a modern, small, industrial scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges and recently completed.
Were you surprised by this?
Mr. SANGER: You know, the surprise was not that the North Koreans are working on uranium enrichment. For more than a decade, there have been a fair bit of evidence that they were buying the parts for this. They bought some of this technology of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani rogue nuclear scientist, as far back as the late 1980s.
The big surprise here was that many people, including the Dr. Hecker, did not believe that they have the capacity to build a modern, industrial size facility. And that's what he saw.
INSKEEP: That's Siegfried Hecker, that's the scientist we're referring to here. So this suggest that even though we're dealing with a country that's blown up nuclear weapons, we know that they can do that, this suggests that there even more sophisticated than we thought?
Mr. SANGER: Well, the weapons that they blew up - and they've done two tests, one in 2006 and one after President Obama, just after President Obama came into office - were underground tests that were fairly small. And the first one was something of a fizzle.
But the problem that they were running into, is that all of this material for making these weapons were taken from the spent fuel from plutonium from a plant that is since closed down. So they had a limited stock. The best guess is that they have enough plutonium to make eight or 12 weapons.
They know that what the United States is most concerned about is they could get out and sell material, as they have sold many others things. And this uranium would give them - this uranium plant - would give them a way for continuing production. And that's why it's really a concern. Not that they aren't a nuclear, power - though the U.S. doesn't recognize them is that - but that they could get the material on a continuing basis and sell it.
INSKEEP: Well, they seem to have constructed this plant in secret. And least it was a secret to the public at large. As far as you can tell, was it a secret to U.S. officials or other officials around the world?
Mr. SANGER: You know, Steve, people have been very cagey with me about that, including very senior members of the administration. They say right away, that the administration knew that North Korea was working on uranium enrichment. And, in fact, the day before Dr. Hecker went up to this plant, President Obama raised the issue of uranium enrichment with Hu Jintao, when he - the president of China - when they met in Seoul.
However, when I ask the question did you know that this plant was going in at Yongbyon, which is a very carefully watched nuclear center inside North Korea, nobody would answer the question for me. And I found that pretty telling.
INSKEEP: Hmm, so maybe they didn't know, or didn't know as much as we know now. So why do you think the North Koreans, if that were the case, would basically make a public announcement by bringing in an American scientist to look around?
Mr. SANGER: You know, Steve, there are sort of three theories. One of them is that they're doing this to have a new bargaining chip, something that they could try to bargain away, since President Obama has refused, really, got to get into discussions with them about the buying back nuclear facilities, which happened during the Clinton administration and even at the end of the Bush administration. So that's one.
The second theory is that they are out to make their nuclear program appear completely inevitable, like Pakistan's, and just get the United States to accept it. A way of saying look, there's no turning back now.
And a third theory - and this is perhaps the most wild one - is that they are seeking a way to be able to build much more powerful bombs; hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear bombs. And you would need uranium to do that. You'd wrap the uranium around their existing plutonium stocks.
Now, we don't have any evidence yet that they have the technology to go do this. But it would give them all of the componentry(ph) that they would need and all the material they would need.
INSKEEP: David, thanks for talking us through this.
Mr. SANGER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's David Sanger, author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." He's also a correspondent for The New York Times.
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