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North Korea 'appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor'

North Korea has restarted a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium, according to a US think tank. Pyongyang had shut down the reactor in 2007 as part of an international aid-for-disarmament agreement.

Satellite images from August 31 showed white steam rising from North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor, evidence that it could be back online, according to the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University.

"The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation," the report published on the institute's "38 North" blog said late on Tuesday.

Yongbyon, which lies roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the capital, can produce up to six kilograms (13.2 lbs) of plutonium a year, according to the 38 North blog. Pyongyang used plutonium from Yongbyon in at least two of its three nuclear tests since 2006.

Pyongyang shut down the facility in 2007 as part of an international agreement to disarm in return for aid. The following year, it destroyed Yongbyon's cooling tower to show its commitment to the disarmament pact.

North Korea announced its plans to reopen the reactor in April in order to generate more electricity and bolster its weapons program.

Experts not surprised

Experts have known about the reconstruction efforts at the facility for months, according to an analyst from a separate Washington-based think tank who spoke to Reuters news agency.

"Acknowledging that we are not completely certain yet, this is very disappointing but not at all unexpected," James Acton from the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

However, diplomatic efforts could still hinder North Korea from producing enough weapons-grade plutonium.

"There remains time to negotiate a shutdown of the reactor before North Korea can use any of this new plutonium in nuclear weapons," David Albright and Robert Avagyan of the Institute for Science and International Security wrote in an analysis, according to the news agency AFP.

"If a shutdown is achieved in the next six months, the reactor would have produced very little plutonium," they said.

Signs of aggression from Pyongyang came less than a day after it had agreed to reopen the Kaesong industrial zone shared with South Korea. Tensions over a joint US-South Korean military exercises prompted North Korea to close the complex earlier this year.

kms/tj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)