North Korea bars tests of reactor fuel

May 01, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea has refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct tests of spent fuel that could clear up a mystery surrounding the nation's nuclear weapons program, an agency official said yesterday.

North Korea had indicated that it would begin replacing the fuel rods in its biggest nuclear reactor next week and had invited the inspectors to observe the process.

But the atomic energy agency, a branch of the United Nations, had also been seeking assurances that it could take measurements of the spent fuel, which could indicate whether North Korea has diverted any for reprocessing for its weapons program.

The refusal to let inspectors conduct such tests is likely to provoke the anger of the United States and could mean the loss of a rare opportunity to determine the scale of North Korea's nuclear weapons development. It also increases the risk that more nuclear fuel will be diverted to the weapons program in the coming months.

In a response received late Friday at its headquarters in Vienna, the atomic energy agency was told that while its inspectors could watch the removal of the fuel rods, they could not sample the fuel and measure its radioactivity.

"Their reply was very firm," David Kyd, a spokesman for the agency, said yesterday from Austria.

In a speech in Tokyo nine days ago, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said that the United States would ask the United Nations to impose sanctions against North Korea if it did not allow monitoring of the replacement of the fuel rods. Mr. Perry said he believed that Japan and South Korea would join in the request for sanctions.

But the Clinton administration reopened a dialogue with North Korea on Thursday, so it is possible that the United States might try to resolve the issue through those discussions before pressing for sanctions.

Mr. Kyd said the U.N. agency had not decided what course to take but that inspectors who had been scheduled to depart for North Korea today would be held back.

Both the U.N. agency and the United States want the removal of the fuel rods at the 25-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon to be closely monitored to ensure that the spent fuel is not diverted for reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium.

In his speech in Tokyo last week, Mr. Perry said the spent fuel could yield enough material for four to five bombs.

The fuel replacement happens only once every few years. North Korea says the fuel rods in the reactor are the original ones installed in 1986.

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