North Korea has begun replacing fuel rods at an experimental nuclear reactor without international inspectors present, in a direct slap at the United Nations.
The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency had demanded that it be present at the refueling to determine whether North Korea had extracted plutonium, which can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, from the spent fuel.
North Korea had agreed to let agency officials watch the fuel replacement, and a team of inspectors was scheduled to be sent to North Korea this weekend.
But North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, monitored in Tokyo, said Saturday that the refueling had begun.
North Korea denies that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but it has refused to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors.
Without taking samples of the freshly removed spent fuel, it will be virtually impossible to tell whether North Korea has diverted significant amounts of plutonium, the nuclear watchdog agency said.
The agency has received no information that North Korea had begun unloading the fuel rods, spokesman David Kyd said Saturday. He said the move would be a very serious violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Agency officials have known North Korea would need to replace the spent fuel in the coming months, but said there was no reason the refueling could not wait until an agreement on sampling was reached.
The nuclear agency had insisted on being allowed to take samples of the spent fuel to determine whether the fuel rods were the first to be used in the reactor, as North Korea claims, or whether earlier rods had already been removed and plutonium extracted from them.
The Korean Central News Agency quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying the agency’s request was unreasonable.
“Under such conditions, we had no other choice but to remove seals and start taking out fuel rods for safety reasons,” he said.
He said the process could not be stopped because that “may cause a new danger.”
The official said the rods would be removed in full view of the agency’s cameras. The agency has said that is inadequate.