A screen several years ago displaying a news report on North Korea resuming operations at a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Analysts say a report in the New York Times earlier this week that North Korea is starting up a light water reactor – an act that could threaten an upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un – is probably wrong.

The Times said in a March 27 article that the North is in the process of firing up the new reactor at Yongbyon that could be used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons in addition to generating electricity for civilian use. It says such an expansion in Pyongyang’s potential ability to make weapons of mass destruction might upset the planned Trump-Kim summit in May.

“Although the article draws heavily from an earlier article by Jane’s Intelligence Review which is generally consistent with our own reporting, the NYT article went too far in suggesting that the reactor is beginning operations. In the absence of other corroborating data, that conclusion is premature at best and is likely wrong,” 38 North analysts Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu said in their analysis for the respected Johns Hopkins University website on North Korea.

“Commercial satellite imagery from February 25, 2018 shows what could be a small wisp of some type of vapor emanating from the elevated ventilation stack that serves the (light water reactor),” the analysis went on to say. “There are serious doubts as to whether this is actually vapor; it may simply be a ground feature of a lighter color associated with the driveway.”

The earlier report in Jane’s suggested that the telltale emission – if it is an emission – could be evidence of “pre-operations testing.” But the analysts said the North Koreans could just be testing part of the ventilation or emergency overpressure gaseous relief system.

Light water reactors are generally used by various countries to generate electricity, though they can also produce materials to make nuclear weapons.

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