February 8, 2013
North Korea’s recent threat to conduct an underground nuclear weapons test, its third, is provocative enough on its own. The North Korean nuclear weapons program is illegal, dangerous and destabilizing, has been widely condemned by the rest of the world and is even causing some tension (alas, probably relatively minor and temporary tension) in Pyongyang’s all-important relationship with China.
Some analysts fear, though, that an upcoming test could feature a uranium-fueled weapon, rendering it potentially even more provocative. North Korea has in the past used plutonium. Why would the switch to uranium matter? Here are four reasons.
1) Uranium enrichment is easier to hide.
“It doesn’t need a reactor like plutonium, and can be carried out using centrifuge cascades in relatively small buildings that give off no heat and are hard to detect,” Mark Fitzpatrick, who as director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ non-proliferation program often focuses on North Korea, told an Australian news outlet. The country revealed it had a uranium enrichment facility in 2010 and is suspected of having more. Nuclear analyst Siegfried Hecker wrote in Foreign Policy recently that, based on his observations during a 2010 trip to the North, he has concluded that “Pyongyang must have a covert centrifuge facility” and probably possesses enough highly enriched uranium for a weapons test.