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North Korea claims progress in building nuclear plant

December 1, 2011 |  4:30 am

REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- North Korea has claimed rapid progress in constructing a nuclear power plant that many experts fear would allow the secretive regime another way to make atomic weapons.

Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that construction of a light-water reactor and production of low enriched uranium are “progressing apace,” according to a report by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The statement by an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed the north’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and that “neither concession nor compromise should be allowed.”

In November, two U.S. experts reported that North Korea was engaged in new construction at its main Yongbyon atomic complex, suggesting that the regime is following through on a plan to build a nuclear power reactor that would use its own nuclear fuel.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security at the time released commercial satellite images showing construction of a rectangular structure, which it believes is a 25- or 30-megawatt light-water reactor.

The institute was also briefed by two U.S. experts who returned from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and who were allowed to visit the plant.

The experts -- Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, and Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea -- told institute officials last year that "the new construction seen in the satellite imagery is indeed the construction of the experimental light-water reactor.”

Earlier this month, North Korean state media said “the day is near at hand” when the reactor project will be completed.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Wednesday said the project violates commitments to  denuclearization that North Korea made in 2005. “We remain concerned about it,” he told reporters in Washington.

Speaking Wednesday in South Korea before leaving for Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized North Korean hostilities, including an artillery attack in November 2010 on a front-line South Korean island that killed four people.

"Let me reaffirm that the United States stands with our ally, and we look to North Korea to take concrete steps that promote peace and stability and denuclearization," Clinton said.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions had been the focus of six-party talks involving China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States. After stepping away last year, Kim Jong Il's regime has recently suggested that it wants to return to the bargaining table.

The U.S. and South Korea maintain that North Korea must show its sincerity about disarming before those talks can continue.

North Korea, which maintains an arsenal of atomic weapons, conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, drawing international concern and sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.

After several years of denying that it was developing such technology, North Korea in 2009 acknowledged that it was in the ultimate stages of uranium enrichment.

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