Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: What Is North Korea Doing?
It is unclear what the heightened activity means, but it could range from rountine maintanence to fuel reprocessing to preparations for something bigger.
This week an article in 38 North noted that satellite imagery shows “heightened activity at the Radiochemical Laboratory (RCL)” at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which has continued since February. However, it’s unclear exactly what the activity indicates.
The article, which cited imagery from Maxar Technologies, found that there is “no definitive evidence” that the facility’s Thermal (Steam) Plant is “operating for the purpose of a new campaign to extract plutonium from spent fuel,” and that it’s possible that the activity is an indication that radioactive waste is being processed or some type of maintenance is going on.
The Maxar mapping shows that the Thermal Plant has been operating since late February of this year. The plant, which does not operate at all times, last operated for a period of a couple of weeks in 2018.
There also appear to be new dark-toned features near the location of the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP) at Yongbyon. And new dams are reportedly being build upstream of the reactor area. Per the report, these actions would serve “to better control the cooling water supply, which is essential to safely restart the 5 MWe Reactor and bring the new Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) online.”
“The possibility of either changing or upgrading the cooling capacity of the centrifuge hall is one consideration, given that redundancy to the cooling system would help ensure uninterrupted operation of the plant,” the report said.
“Problems with the cooling system have been noted previously, demonstrated by the replacement and repositioning of three of the units in late 2014, and the removal of one of the cooling units last year, which has yet to be replaced.”
The facility is located in North Pyongan Province, in the Northwestern part of North Korea, in a province that borders China. It began construction in 1980 and was completed in 1986. The facility and the work done there has often been a subject of negotiations, most notably in 1994, when the Agreed Framework deal led to the shutdown of the 5 MWe experimental reactor at Yongbyon, although it was later restarted after the Agreed Framework unraveled.
Earlier this week, satellite data from the same company, Maxar Technologies, indicated that Russia was building up its military presence in the Arctic. That data, shared with CNN, showed that Russia has been conducting weapons tests in the northernmost regions of its territory, including testing the systems in the unmanned stealth torpedo known as the Poseidon.
Because North Korea recently conducting ballistic missile tests, many eyes are on that country as experts and policymakers examine Pyongyang’s nuclear program. An article in NBC News, citing Maxar data last month, had stated that activity at the Yongbyon facility indicated the Kim regime “is preparing to start or has already started reprocessing plutonium for nuclear weapons.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.