North Korea’s Reactor for Producing Plutonium Appears to Be Operating

North Korea's Soviet-era, plutonium-producing reactor is circled in red in this 2003 surveillance satellite image. A light-water reactor constructed after this photo was taken appears to have begun operating in recent months, according to an expert image analysis.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 24, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

Re­cent satel­lite im­ages in­dic­ate that North Korea’s plutoni­um-pro­duc­tion re­act­or is op­er­at­ing again fol­low­ing a re­por­ted pos­sible shut­down.

In com­mer­cial satel­lite pho­tos taken as re­cently as this month, wa­ter can be seen pour­ing out of the five-mega­watt elec­tric re­act­or, ac­cord­ing to a Wed­nes­day ana­lys­is by the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity.

The dis­charged wa­ter is most prob­ably com­ing from a sec­ond­ary cool­ing sys­tem used to chill the gas pro­duced from the nuc­le­ar-re­act­or core, con­cludes the as­sess­ment by Dav­id Al­bright and Ser­ena Kelle­her-Ver­gantini. The wa­ter in­dic­ates either “test­ing or on­go­ing op­er­a­tion” of the graph­ite re­act­or, they said.

Ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate im­age ana­lys­is by 38 North is­sued earli­er this month, between Decem­ber and Feb­ru­ary, Py­ongy­ang may have tem­por­ar­ily shut down or sig­ni­fic­antly cur­tailed op­er­a­tions at the re­act­or in or­der to con­duct emer­gency main­ten­ance work ne­ces­sit­ated by re­cent flood­ing.

None of the April pho­to­graphs ana­lyzed by the IS­IS ex­perts, though, showed signs of steam em­an­at­ing from the re­act­or’s tur­bine build­ing. Were steam be­ing reg­u­larly emit­ted, it would in­dic­ate reg­u­lar re­act­or op­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to the ana­lys­is. It noted, however, that the lack of steam did not ne­ces­sar­ily mean the fa­cil­ity was not be­ing con­sist­ently op­er­ated.

North Korea dis­abled the graph­ite re­act­or in 2007 in ac­cord­ance with a now-dead de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion agree­ment with Wash­ing­ton. The Kim Jong Un re­gime last spring an­nounced that it would re­act­iv­ate the re­act­or so it could be­gin pro­du­cing fis­sile ma­ter­i­al for the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar arms pro­gram.

Sep­ar­ately, North Korea’s urani­um en­rich­ment plant at Yongby­on ap­pears not to have had any new ex­ter­i­or work done on it since it was last ana­lyzed by the in­sti­tute in Decem­ber. This could mean that a pre­vi­ously de­tec­ted con­struc­tion ef­fort to double the size of the en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity has been com­pleted, the in­sti­tute said on Wed­nes­day.

“North Korea could now be con­cen­trat­ing on in­stalling equip­ment and even cent­ri­fuges in­side the ex­pan­ded build­ing,” ac­cord­ing to the ana­lys­is.

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle was changed after pub­lic­a­tion to ac­cur­ately de­scribe the graph­ite re­act­or ana­lyzed by the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity.

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