A May 16, 2012, file photo of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea.

A May 16, 2012, file photo of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea. GeoEye/AP

Is This the Nuclear Facility Pyongyang Has Been Waiting For?

An experimental, light-water nuclear reactor years in the making could provide the regime as many as 6 nuclear warheads per year. By Global Security Newswire

North Korea's capacity to produce nuclear warheads could get a big boost when a new reactor becomes operational, the Yonhap News Agency reports.

For several years, Pyongyang has been constructing an experimental light-water nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon atomic complex. The North is thought to be almost finished erecting the facility. Once adequate nuclear fuel supplies are available, experts estimate that the process for making the reactor operational will take between 9 and 12 months.

Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, in an interview with Yonhap published on Sunday said the reactor had the potential to generate enough plutonium annually to fuel 5-6 nuclear warheads.

If the reactor is run at high power, and there are no mishaps with its operation, "they could probably make 30-40 kilograms just from that reactor" each year, he said.

Other independent experts have estimated the reactor could generate enough fissile material annually to produce between 1-4 nuclear weapons.

Approximately 6-7 kilograms of plutonium is needed to fuel one warhead, specialists say.

Ferguson said North Korea might use a nearby uranium enrichment plant to produce low-enriched uranium for fuel assemblies for the experimental reactor instead of directly using the facility to produce warhead-grade uranium.

"It depends on how frequently they refuel the reactor," the U.S. nuclear specialist said. "They can take spent, radiated fuel out of the reactor quickly within a couple of months, then the plutonium coming out is more weapons grade."

An older Soviet-era graphite reactor that North Korea recently reactivated is thought capable ofproducing 6 kilograms each year.

Meanwhile, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un recently warned that Seoul would "regret bitterly" perceived hostile actions toward Pyongyang, Kyodo News reported on Saturday.

Kim was reported by regime-controlled media to have issued the threat when he oversaw a military land invasion exercise. He was responding to South Korean live-fire drills that took place in late June in the Yellow Sea near a disputed maritime border.