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U.S. think tank: N. Korea operating lithium-6 plant for hydrogen bombs

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Published : 2017-03-18 13:39
Updated : 2017-03-18 13:54

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea is believed to have built and is operating a plant to produce lithium 6, a key ingredient for hydrogen bombs that are much more powerful than conventional nuclear weapons, a U.S. think tank claimed Friday.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said the plant appears be located at the Hungnam Chemical Complex near Hamhung on the North's east coast. It cited a 2012 order the North placed in China to purchase large quantities of mercury and lithium hydroxide, key materials to produce lithium 6.

"Lithium 6 is a critical raw material needed for the production of single-stage thermonuclear and boosted fission weapons. These findings add credibility to North Korea’s claims that it has been developing thermonuclear or boosted fission weapons, regardless of the actual status of those efforts," ISIS said in a report.

Lithium 6 reacts with a neutron to produce tritium, the most important thermonuclear material for weapons. When tritium fuses with deuterium (D) it releases relatively large amounts of energy and neutrons, becoming a key reaction driving a thermonuclear explosion and leading to more efficient fissioning of the plutonium or weapon-grade uranium in a weapon, the report said.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council's Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea also said that the regime attempted to sell lithium 6, an indication that the North is making more lithium 6 than it needs in its nuclear weapons program, according to ISIS.

ISIS said it believes the Hungnam Chemical Complex is the site for the lithium 6 plant because the procurement contract had handwritten notes stating that the goods were needed urgently and the procurements involved the Hungnam complex.

"The Hungnam complex makes sense for a lithium 6 production plant. This site is involved in ammonia processing and fertilizer production, and has electrolysis facilities," ISIS said.

It also said the North's plant is believed to be able to produce at least 10 kg of lithium 6 per year, an amount that would allow both the use of lithium 6 in nuclear weapons and the production of many grams of tritium per year.

"These findings add credibility to North Korea’s claims that it has been developing thermonuclear or boosted fission weapons, albeit likely crude ones that may still not work. But with more nuclear testing and time, North Korea is likely to succeed," it said.