By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 — North Korea may build up to 48 nuclear weapons, both based on plutonium and uranium, by 2015 or 2016 unless negotiations and other proper measures are implemented to head off such a potential threat, a U.S. think tank report said Thursday.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) admitted the difficulty in obtaining accurate information on the secretive communist nation's nuclear capability.
It used scientific and statistical data to estimate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons arsenal under various scenarios.
If North Korea operates only one centrifuge plant, it is projected to have 28-39 nuclear weapons by the end of 2016, or an increase of 16 weapons since the end of 2011, according to the report.
The 40-page report was co-authored by David Albright, head of the Washington-headquartered ISIS, and Christina Walrond, a research associate.
"If North Korea has two centrifuge plants, however, it could produce a much larger quantity of WGU (weapons-grade uranium). It could have 37-48 nuclear weapons, or an increase of 25 weapons, most of which would be produced in 2015 and 2016," they said.
North Korea has worked on a plutonium-based nuclear program for decades and it conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The international community suspects Pyongyang is now pushing for another method — uranium enrichment.
In a report published earlier this week, based on satellite imagery, the ISIS said it expects North Korea to complete the construction of a new light-water reactor at Yongbyon as early as in the latter half of 2013.
North Korea is widely believed to have six to 18 plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
"North Korea is not thought to be currently making weapon-grade plutonium," Albright and Walrond said, adding it could resume such production in 2015 and 2016.
They stressed talks remain a useful way to cap North Korea's uranium enrichment program and block the use of the light-water reactor (LWR) to make weapons-grade plutonium.
"If negotiations resume, the issue of the experimental LWR should be taken up," they said.(PNA/Yonhap)