By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency said on Thursday it had seen releases of steam and water indicating that North Korea may be seeking to restart a reactor that experts say would be capable of making plutonium for atomic bombs.
North Korea announced in April that it would revive its aged research reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex but said it was seeking a deterrent capacity.
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the Vienna-based IAEA continued to monitor developments at Yongbyon, mainly through satellite imagery.
"Activities have been observed at the site that are consistent with an effort to restart the 5MW(e) reactor," he told the IAEA's 35-nation board, referring to the Yongbyon research reactor.
"However, as the agency has no access to the site, it is not possible for us to conclusively determine whether the reactor has been re-started," he said, according to a copy of his speech.
He later told a news conference that the IAEA has "very recently seen activities at Yongbyon that point to possible testing" of the reactor, including the release of steam from vents and the apparent discharge of water into a river.
The Yongbyon reactor has been technically out of operation for years. North Korea destroyed its cooling tower in 2008 as a confidence-building step in talks with South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
When North Korea said it planned to revive the reactor, nuclear experts said it would probably take about half a year to get it up and running, if it had not suffered significant damage from neglect.
In September, a U.S. research institute and a U.S. official said satellite imagery suggested North Korea had restarted the facility.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said a satellite image from August 31 showed white steam rising from a building near the hall that houses the reactor's steam turbines and electric generators.
The reclusive Asian state has defied international warnings not to build atomic bombs and long-range missiles. It is believed to have enough fissile material to build up to 10 nuclear bombs, but most intelligence analysis says it has yet to master the technology to deploy such weapons.
North Korea said in July it would not give up its nuclear "deterrent" until Washington ends its "hostile policy" towards it, although it was ready to revive nuclear talks.
The U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Joseph Macmanus, said the North's "actions and stance regarding its nuclear program remain a cause for serious concern".
"We continue to see press reports about activity at Yongbyon, and official (North Korean) media outlets have continued to highlight Pyongyang's intent to 'bolster its nuclear deterrent'," he told the board.
"Far from signaling a commitment to denuclearization, these reports indicate a continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons."
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Janet Lawrence)