This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 8, 2012 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) saluting to pilots during a flight training at Unit 1017 of the Air and Anti-Air Forces of the Korean People's Army. (Photo credit STR/AFP/GettyImages)
Michael Winter, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - North Korea may be restarting a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium, U.S. researchers reported Wednesday.
An Aug. 31 commercial satellite photo shows what appears to be steam coming from a building at the Yongbyon complex, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said in a report shared with the Associated Press.
"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 researchers wrote.
As part of an aid-for-disarmament agreement, the gas-graphite reactor was shut down in 2007, and its cooling tower was torn down a year later. But amid rocket tests and bellicose threats against South Korea and the United States, Pyongyang's leadership announced in April that it planned to restart the facility.
The reactor can produce about 13 pounds of plutonium a year.
An unidentified State Department spokesman would not comment to Reuters about the report because it involved intelligence issues, but did say North Korea's nuclear program "remains a matter of serious concern."
Back in April, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a daily briefing that restarting the reactor would be "extremely alarming." She added, however, "There's a long way to go between a stated intention and actually being able to pull it off."
James Acton, a nuclear analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters that restarting the reactor "is another slap in the face to the international community" and indicates that Kim Jong Un's regime "has no intention whatsoever of abandoning its nuclear weapons."
"It's not unexpected because we've been able to see for months through satellite imagery that North Korea has been working on repairing the 5-megawatt electric reactor," he said.