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‘Seoul Has Tech for Making Weapons-Grade Uranium’

Kim Tae-gyu / Korea Times | October 17 2006

South Korea possesses the advanced technologies required to enrich uranium for atomic bombs, a source familiar with the issue said yesterday.

``Technologically speaking, South Korea can enrich uranium to weapons grade anytime using lasers thanks to the country's breakthroughs in 2000,'' said the source, who wished to remain anonymous.

``The laser-based technologies are much more advanced than conventional ways of using a centrifugal machine. In addition, the former is by far cheaper than the latter,'' said the source, who has worked for South Korea's state-run nuclear facilities for four decades.

In 2000, researchers at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) conducted experiments of enriching a tiny amount of uranium with lasers in a lab at the Taejon-based institute.

The trial carried out without the knowledge of the government was brought to light in 2004, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency to send an inspection team to investigate the case.

``Back then, KAERI researchers successfully enriched uranium to 77 percent in a one-off test. One more attempt would have increased the rate to almost 100 percent,'' said the source.

``Basically, I do not agree with the idea of arming ourselves with nuclear weapons. In an emergency, however, we have techniques to extract U-235 from uranium,'' said the 60-something nuclear scientist, who still works for a national institute as an advisor.

Uranium found in nature is a silvery gray metal consisting largely of two isotopes _ U-235 and U-238. The former is a highly fissionable ingredient that plays a pivotal role in creating great amounts energy when its atom splits.

But the natural uranium contains just roughly 0.7 percent of U-235 and the remaining 99.3 percent is mostly U-239, which has little to do with the fission process.

As a result, scientists work on purifying the uranium to increase the proportion of U-235 to 4-5 percent for nuclear reactors and to more than 90 percent for weapons.

With regards to the enrichment process by laser, other local experts such as Prof. Lee Un-chul at Seoul National University disagree.

``No team in the world has succeeded in enriching uranium to higher than 90 percent with lasers. In other words, the technique has yet to be proven,'' Lee said.

``If the laser-enabled method is viable, why don't other nuclear powers embrace it instead of relying solely on expensive gas centrifuges,'' he added.


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