WASHINGTON – U.S. scientists have discovered traces of enriched uranium on smelted aluminum tubing provided by North Korea, apparently contradicting Pyongyang’s denial that it had a clandestine nuclear program, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources.
The United States has long pointed to North Korea’s acquisition of thousands of aluminum tubes as evidence of such a program, saying the tubes could be used as the outer casing for centrifuges needed to spin hot uranium gas into the fuel for nuclear weapons. North Korea has denied that contention and, as part of a declaration on its nuclear programs due by the end of the year, recently provided the United States with a small sample to demonstrate the tubes were used for conventional purposes.
The discovery of the uranium traces has been closely held by senior U.S. officials concerned that disclosure would expose intelligence methods and complicate the diplomatic process. North Korea has steadfastly refused to open up about its past practices, simply asserting that it is not engaged in inappropriate activities. However, the uranium finding will force U.S. negotiators to demand a detailed explanation from Pyongyang.
Ross Feinstein, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, declined to comment on the uranium discovery, as did officials at the State Department.
North Korea has made rapid progress on disabling its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, which produces a different type of fuel: plutonium. But now U.S. officials have encountered resistance from Pyongyang on the crucial next steps in the six-nation agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A top State Department official, Sung Kim, is in Pyongyang this week to discuss the declaration with North Korean officials.
“We expect a complete and accurate declaration from North Korea,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thusday during a news conference with the Canadian foreign minister. “If we are to move forward, and if we are to move forward on all of the benefits that would come to North Korea through the successful completion of this second phase, we really must have an accurate declaration.”
In addition to the possibility that the tubes acquired traces of uranium as part of an active enrichment program, sources said the tubing could have been contaminated by exposure to other equipment. Pakistan, for instance, has acknowledged providing North Korea with a sample centrifuge kit, and so the tubes might have acquired the enriched uranium from the Pakistani equipment. In 2003, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency detected traces of enriched uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility and ultimately determined that the material came from Pakistani equipment provided by a nuclear smuggling network.