N. Korea may have more plutonium than previously thought, experts say

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Recent thermal images show intermittent activity at the radiochemical laboratory that suggests the production of "an undetermined amount of plutonium" at the North's Yongbyon nuclear facility, 38 North said Friday.

It comes after tensions between North Korea and the worldwide community were ramped up even further over the last fortnight.

Tensions escalated in the peninsula in July when North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, believed to be capable of hitting targets as far away as Alaska.

Thermal images of North Korea's main nuclear facility reveal that Kim Jong-un may have produced more plutonium than previously thought in a bid to expand his stockpile of atomic weapons, according to USA researchers.

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Fears have also been raised over the hermit kingdom's missile launches, with concerns the regime is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the USA mainland.

North Korea has tested five nuclear bombs which have been manufactured using uranium and plutonium. Officials and experts say it could test a sixth at any time, despite US-led global efforts to curb its programme.

38 North, a website run by the U.S. -Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said thermal patterns associated with the reprocessing facility show "significant deviations from month to month".

It said the increase could be due to short-term activity such as the heating of pipes to prevent freezing but "any activity at the ELWR is cause for concern and its operational status bears continued monitoring as it would be an indicator of North Korean ongoing intentions and capabilities".

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A report by US-based nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker published by 38 North last September estimated North Korea had stockpiles of 32kg to 54kg of plutonium, enough for six to eight bombs.

Thermal readings at what is thought to be the site's isotope and tritium production facility remained consistent over several months, suggesting that it was "likely not producing tritium, which is an essential isotope used in the production of boosted yield nuclear weapons and hydrogen bombs".

The monitors said images of the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon may also indicate an increase in the North's supply of enriched uranium, its other source of bomb-making fuel.

Tritium is a key component used for making sophisticated thermonuclear weapons, such as a hydrogen bomb that the North Korean government claimed to have tested in January a year ago.

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