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Second North Korean nuke site suspected

From Chris Plante
CNN Washington Bureau

U.S. defense officials believe North Korea has a secret nuclear facility in addition to this one at Yongbyon.
U.S. defense officials believe North Korea has a secret nuclear facility in addition to this one at Yongbyon.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States suspects North Korea may be operating a second nuclear weapons facility, this one at a secret location, a senior U.S. defense official told CNN Sunday.

Air sensors on North Korea's borders have detected elevated levels of krypton 85, a gas emitted in the processing of spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, indicating the possibility of a second facility in addition to the known site at Yongbyon, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although computer analyses tracking the krypton 85 as well as other evidence suggest such a site, no other solid information exists, including satellite reconnaissance, the official said.

The gas "could be coming from somewhere other than Yongbyon," the official said, but "we're just not sure." He said the scientific method used was "not precise."

The official acknowledged North Korea has been digging a number of deep underground facilities in mountainous areas over the past several years but could not confirm if these sites might be the location of a nuclear facility.

The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. officials have long thought North Korea might try to build another plant in case of a U.S. airstrike. A suspected underground site was inspected five years ago at U.S. insistence, but it was found empty, the Times reported.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not confirm the report. "We do not discuss intelligence matters," he said.

But he noted the North Koreans have taken "a number of escalating steps in recent months," including expelling international nuclear inspectors, restarting nuclear facilities and announcing in April that they would develop a nuclear weapons program.

"North Korea has no legitimate use for plutonium harvested during this procedure," McClellan said. "Reprocessing to recover plutonium is a clear indication that North Korea is seeking to enlarge its nuclear arsenal."

North Korea recently told the United States it had finished processing 8,000 spent fuel rods into plutonium and intends to build nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials said they are "very concerned" about the claim, and while they have evidence North Korea is reprocessing some of the spent fuel rods, they can't say how many.

The intelligence evidence supporting that belief was the presence of krypton 85 detected recently in air samples taken downwind from North Korean territory.

The isolated and impoverished nation is believed by the United States to possess at least one and perhaps as many as three nuclear weapons.

If 8,000 nuclear fuel rods have been reprocessed, the North Koreans may be able to produce six to 12 additional nuclear warheads, U.S. officials estimate.

"They are one of the world's worst proliferators," the defense official said, expressing concern the Communist regime might be willing to sell nuclear weapons or materials on the open market once it has enough to stockpile.

"They're very unpredictable," he said.

North Korea also has an advanced ballistic missile capability that could potentially be able to deliver a nuclear warhead over a long distance.

The Bush administration recently expressed optimism over its attempt to set a new round of multilateral talks with North Korea about ending its nuclear program. (Full story)

McClellan said the United States "will be working closely with our friends and allies towards a shared objective of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end of North Korea's nuclear weapons program."

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