Wall Street Journal: North Korea’s apparent upgrade to its nuclear-fuel production capabilities is raising fears among lawmakers and proliferation experts about Pyongyang’s potential role in supplying Iran and others with the sophisticated machinery.
The Wall Street Journal
Pyongyang’s Apparent Use of Next-Generation Centrifuges Spurs Lawmakers’ Concerns That Technology Could Be Shared.
By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON—North Korea’s apparent upgrade to its nuclear-fuel production capabilities is raising fears among lawmakers and proliferation experts about Pyongyang’s potential role in supplying Iran and others with the sophisticated machinery.
Tehran and Pyongyang have developed expansive military ties over the past three decades and have collaborated in developing missile systems, submarines and small arms. U.S. and allied intelligence services have also interdicted a number of Iran-bound North Korean arms shipments, by sea and by air, in recent years.
Lawmakers and proliferation experts said North Korea, desperate for hard currency, could seek to expand on these military ties to aid Iran’s nuclear work—particularly at a time when Tehran is facing technical challenges in producing nuclear fuel.
“We don’t know exactly how coordinated it is, but it would be naïve to assume that they’re not cooperating on centrifuges,” said Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
A senior U.S. official said the Obama administration recognizes the proliferation risks but that new U.N. sanctions have significantly constricted Pyongyang’s ability to move materials.
The concerns were sparked by a report released Saturday by Stanford physicist Siegfried Hecker that he saw some 2,000 centrifuges organized in cascades at a North Korean facility he visited earlier this month. U.S. intelligence agencies and outside nuclear experts have cited the report, and its description of the size and scope of the centrifuges, to conclude they are so-called P-2 designs—a generation beyond what Iran is using.
“One has to assume that Iran either has the P-2 centrifuge from North Korea, or could get it very easily,” said Simon Henderson, a proliferation expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He also worries that North Korea could enrich uranium on Iran’s behalf.
Fears of North Korean proliferation activities have been heightened by Pyongyang’s alleged role in building a nuclear operational reactor inside Syria behind the back of international monitors.
Iran has continued in recent months to expand its nuclear-fuel production at its Natanz facility in central Iran even as the international community has strengthened sanctions for what it say is Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear arms. Iran says its pursuit of nuclear technology is peaceful.
U.S. and United Nations officials have documented what they describe as serious limitations in Iran’s ability to quickly and efficiently produce the enriched uranium required to either fuel a nuclear power reactor or to build an atomic weapon. They attribute this largely to the failings of Iran’s less-advanced centrifuges, which are based on a P-1 design originally provided by the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has since reported on Iran’s efforts to build a more advanced centrifuge such as the P-2. But so far the agency hasn’t documented any significant deployment of such equipment at Iranian nuclear sites.
“We don’t see it,” the IAEA’s former top inspector, Olli Heinonen, said at Washington roundtable Monday on Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Heinonen said Iran could be deploying more-advanced centrifuges at clandestine sites. But he also said he believed Iran is facing difficulty purchasing raw materials, particularly carbon fiber and maraging steel, it needs to produce this equipment.
Mr. Hecker, the Stanford physicist, estimated that the centrifuges he saw on his Nov. 12 visit to North Korea’s Yongybyon nuclear complex could produce around two tons of low-enriched uranium per year, or around 88 pounds of highly enriched uranium, nearly enough for a single atomic weapon.
U.S. and IAEA officials say they believe North Korea procured the P-2-style centrifuge designs from A.Q Khan following a barter trade conducted in the 1990s. But they say it remains uncertain whether Pyongyang has actually deployed such P-2 centrifuges effectively.
Mr. Hecker said North Korean officials told him that the centrifuges had begun producing nuclear fuel at the site enriched to 3.5% purity. Weapon-grade fuel needs to be enriched to around 90% purity. The American academic reported that he was unable to verify the North Koreans’ claims.
“They were given a brief glimpse at a capability. We’re going to assess exactly what we believe that capability represents,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday.
Nuclear experts also noted that North Korea could be facing similar technical difficulties as Iran in operating the equipment, which spins at supersonic speeds and can easily break apart or leak uranium gas if its parts aren’t balanced and fortified with high-end metals.
“We don’t know which country is further along and what are the bottlenecks each faces in developing P2-type centrifuges,” said David Albright, director of Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security. “There are plenty of reasons to cooperate. Still unclear if they will.”
—Adam Entous contributed to this article.