New Images Suggest North Korea Temporarily Shut Down Reactor

Global Security Newswire Staff
April 8, 2014, 8:26 a.m.

An ana­lys­is of re­cent satel­lite im­ages in­dic­ates North Korea earli­er this year tem­por­ar­ily hal­ted op­er­a­tions at its plutoni­um re­act­or, likely due to safety fears.

The North is as­sessed to have re­star­ted its So­viet-era graph­ite re­act­or at the Yongby­on com­plex in 2013 in ac­cord­ance with its vow to reded­ic­ate nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies to­ward the pro­duc­tion of fis­sile ma­ter­i­al for weapons pro­duc­tion.

However, the ex­pert web­site 38 North in a Monday im­age ana­lys­is con­cluded that op­er­a­tions at the re­act­or might have either been tem­por­ar­ily sus­pen­ded or greatly re­duced in re­cent months to per­mit main­ten­ance work ne­ces­sit­ated by re­cent flood­ing, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted.

An un­in­ter­rup­ted stream of wa­ter from the river is used to cool the graph­ite re­act­or. The Ju­ly 2013 flood caused the prin­cip­al chan­nel of the Kur­y­ong River to di­vert away from the re­act­or’s wa­ter sup­ply and po­ten­tially dam­aged pipes that had been laid on the river bot­tom, said the ana­lys­is by 38 North, a pro­ject of the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity.

Between Decem­ber and Feb­ru­ary, the North ap­pears to have quickly fin­ished “ma­jor wa­ter chan­nel ex­cav­a­tions and dam con­struc­tion,” wrote 38 North im­age ex­pert Nick Hansen. The re­act­or seems to have star­ted op­er­at­ing again by mid-Feb­ru­ary.

The Kur­y­ong River sup­plies cool­ing wa­ter to both the graph­ite re­act­or and a new­er, ex­per­i­ment­al light-wa­ter re­act­or that is al­most com­pleted, ac­cord­ing to 38 North.

“Des­pite these short-term fixes, the danger posed by an un­re­li­able sup­ply of wa­ter for the Yongby­on re­act­ors re­mains, par­tic­u­larly since the chan­nels and dam con­struc­ted are made from sand and could be washed away by fu­ture floods,” Hansen wrote.

A num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar spe­cial­ists have raised con­cerns about a pos­sible re­act­or melt­down at Yongby­on giv­en North Korea’s re­l­at­ive in­ex­per­i­ence with re­act­ors and the coun­try’s in­ter­na­tion­al isol­a­tion and poverty.

“These re­cent prob­lems should be a wake-up call for North­east Asia,” 38 North ed­it­or Joel Wit said to AP.

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