Fresh signs of life at Yongbyon, the heart of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme
Satellite images point to upgrades at the site and cooling water discharge from the reactor, analysts say
North Korea appears to be keeping the heart of its nuclear operations ticking over ahead of talks with the United States on ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, senior scientists said on Thursday.
The assessment followed the release of satellite images of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre by 38 North, a North Korea monitoring group.
The images indicate a series of upgrades to the site, North Korea’s main nuclear facility, and are dated June 21 – 56 days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and nine days after Kim’s summit with US President Donald Trump.
Kim made pledges to “complete denuclearisation” at both meetings. Trump also suggested there would be a series of negotiations after the summit.
According to 38 North, the Yongbyon site, about 100km north of the capital Pyongyang, appears to have a new engineering office, a new small non-industrial building and modifications to the secondary cooling loop of the 5 megawatt electric (5MWe) plutonium reactor.
A small amount of cooling water also appeared to have been discharged from the reactor into the Kuryong River but the amount released was less than previously observed when the reactor was fully operational, and there was no visible steam from the generator building, the group said.
Seoul National University nuclear engineering professor Suh Kune-yull said the small amount of discharged water could be a sign that the facility was still running but not at full capacity.
“While more information must be collected to draw a more accurate conclusion, it seems like North Korea is in the process of extracting plutonium or making tritium … which is usual in nuclear weapons development,” Suh said.
“North Korea desperately needs to keep extracting [plutonium and tritium] to maintain its weapons in an operational state,” he said, adding that a plutonium bomb would not function without the extraction procedure.
Lee Chun-geun, a senior research fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Sejong, said the cooling water discharge meant “they have done something that requires heat”, but the satellite images were not enough for the international community to get a full picture of what was happening.
“A substantial amount of cooling water must continually be disposed from the facility for it to be fully operational,” Lee said.
Zhao Tong, a fellow on the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said Pyongyang had always kept the reactor running and this was likely to remain the case in the short term as it held on to its deterrence card.
“I wouldn’t call it a reactivation. It’s a continuation. The 5MWe reactor has been on and off [over the years] but was never fully stopped,” Zhao said.
“North Korea is not likely to give up its nuclear deterrence in the near future and so will need to keep the Yongbyon facilities in good condition.”
Zhao said North Korea had only frozen its nuclear programme and not yet turned to dismantling it.
“Denuclearisation is an aspiration in the long run. But it is unlikely to be achieved in a short term. They want to keep their nuclear deterrence capability,” he said.