MU professor calls North Korean nuclear test 'long-term concern'

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | 6:59 p.m. CST; updated 8:27 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 12, 2013

COLUMBIA — Following the confirmation of North Korea's nuclear test Tuesday, the specifics of that incident can be confusing given the country's history of secrecy.

Sudarshan Loyalka, curators' professor of nuclear engineering at the MU Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute, answered the Missourian's questions about the latest move by the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un.

What is a nuclear test?

North Korea is trying to build a bomb small enough to fit on a missile that could reach the United States.

"The nuclear test was conducted as part of measures to protect our national security and sovereignty against the reckless hostility of the United States that violated our republic’s right for a peaceful satellite launch," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Following a 1953 armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War, the United States has maintained thousands of troops in South Korea.

Early Tuesday, the country conducted an underground nuclear test in a remote area on the northeastern part of the peninsula. In a nuclear test, a trial device is detonated to test the efficiency of its materials, Loyalka said. There is an explosive release of large energy and thermal radiation followed by a shock wave.

Nuclear bombs are created in two distinct ways, Loyalka said. Uranium-235 or plutonium-239 are the key isotopes needed to create the weapons. While U-235 is found naturally, it needs to be separated from another, more abundant isotope, U-238. Pu-239 is created from U-238 in a reactor, thus both require the addition of man-made technology to be harvested.

It is unclear whether the bomb detonated by North Korea was made of uranium or plutonium, Loyalka said. The two previous nuclear devices tested, in 2006 and 2009, were plutonium, and their yields were estimated at 1 kiloton and 2 to 6 kilotons, respectively.

If this latest device was made of uranium, the country has diversified its source of bomb making materials, meaning scientists there are on their way to making more powerful bombs, Loyalka said. South Korea's Defense Ministry estimated the yield of Tuesday's bomb could be larger than previous tests, at 6 to 7 kilotons.

What does it mean for Americans?

Because the test was conducted underground, we won't be affected by any radiation, Loyalka said.

"It's not today's worry," he said. "It's not tomorrow's worry. It is a long-term concern."

The country is not close to creating a nuclear bomb that it could use on the United States, Loyalka said.

"It's hard to imagine that anyone would be so desperate to invite their own total annihilation," he said, referring to any successful future North Korean launch against another country. 

What's next?

Loyalka said the United States is engaged in the matter.

"We should feel comfort in that," he said.

In an emergency session convened by the United Nations Tuesday, the body pledged to take further action against North Korea. Previously, it has passed three resolutions punishing the country for its nuclear activities.

"We should support all efforts that curtail the creation of nuclear weapons," Loyalka said. "We should recognize that this threat is out there and that it could become far worse."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Supervising editor is Jacob Kirn.

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