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Satellite Images Show New Construction at North Korea’s Plutonium Production Reactor; Rapid Restart?

By
03 April 2013


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis.

North Korea has begun new construction at a plutonium production reactor located at the Yongbyon nuclear complex that may be intended to restart the facility shut down under a 2007 agreement. A key step in that process will be to restore the disabled secondary cooling system. Fans blow carbon dioxide on the reactor core to cool the 5 megawatt electric (MWe) reactor. The secondary cooling loop provides water to remove heat from the gas.

Under the 2007 Six Party agreement to disable facilities at Yongbyon, North Korea agreed to cut and remove portions of steel piping of the secondary cooling loop outside the reactor building and to remove the internal wood structure of the cooling tower. North Korea subsequently agreed to demolish the cooling tower in 2008 to provide the Bush administration with a “striking visual” that would symbolize the disablement process.

Commercial satellite imagery shows that new construction activity started at the 5 MWe reactor in the six weeks between the beginning of February and the end of March 2013, prior to the Pyongyang’s announcement earlier this week that it intended to reactivate the facility. While imagery from February 7 shows no activity at the reactor site, March 29 imagery indicates that construction has begun along the roadway and toward the backside of the reactor building. There appears to be excavation that may be related to replacing the sections of the secondary cooling loop that were cut and removed in accordance with the Six Party agreement. The water pipes that connected the reactor to the old cooling tower likely followed this road underground. (Across the road there is work in progress on the end of a building, and to the north, the roof is being replaced on another small building whose purpose is unknown.)

Rather than construct a new cooling tower, North Korea may simply connect the secondary cooling system to the pump house built for its new experimental light water reactor (ELWR) which is located adjacent to the old reactor. The “copy” of the Yongbyon reactor that North Korea was constructing in Syria before it was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2006 also used a pump house instead of a tower to provide secondary cooling. North Korea may connect repaired pipelines that run underground from the 5 MWe reactor to those coming from the new pump house constructed by the river to supply the ELWR with water. Rebuilding the destroyed cooling tower may have taken as long as six months but utilizing the cooling system from the ELWR may significantly reduce the time necessary to restart the 5 MWe reactor to weeks rather than months.[1] One key factor that would affect this estimate is the availability of fresh fuel rods for the reactor.

Once operational, the 5 MWe reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium per year. Whether it can continue that production indefinitely depends on the fresh fuel rod supply.

Figure 1. No activity at the 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon on February 7, 2013.

(Click to enlarge.) Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media usage inquiries, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. New construction at the 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon on March 29, 2013.

(Click to enlarge.) Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media usage inquiries, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figures 3 & 4: Cooling pipe system (November 13, 2012 & March 29, 2013).

(Click to enlarge.) Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media usage inquiries, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

(Click to enlarge.) Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media usage inquiries, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.


[1] In 2010, Sig Hecker stated that North Korea could restore the piping in the secondary cooling loop without constructing a cooling tower, something that “could be done in days to a week.” See: http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2010_11/NKReactorWork.

Reader Feedback

24 Responses to “Satellite Images Show New Construction at North Korea’s Plutonium Production Reactor; Rapid Restart?”

  1. [...] Por otro lado, el país parece haber comenzado a realizar obras en su reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tras anunciar esta semana que iba a reiniciar su actividad, de acuerdo a unas imágenes por satélite difundidas este jueves por el Instituto Estados Unidos-Corea en su página web 38north. [...]

  2. [...] In the wake of the announcement of the “byungjin” line of simultaneously pursuing economic development and the nuclear program, North Korea also announced in April—through the General Department of Atomic Energy–its intention to “adjust” the uses of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. This “adjustment” meant “restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor.” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis almost immediately noted new construction at the site, probably related to cooling. [...]

  3. [...] In the wake of the announcement of the “byungjin” line of simultaneously pursuing economic development and the nuclear program, North Korea also announced in April—through the General Department of Atomic Energy–its intention to “adjust” the uses of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. This “adjustment” meant “restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor.” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis almost immediately noted new construction at the site, probably related to cooling. [...]

  4. [...] North noticed construction via satellite imagery at the Yongbyon plutonium reactor in 2013-02 and suggested that it might be to restore the cooling [...]

  5. [...] further back in time, the construction at Yongbyon earlier in the year was also reported on 38North by Hansen and Lewis; that early story also bears re-reading as it laid out the roadmap to a [...]

  6. [...] new evidence was outlined by North Korean watchdog site 38 North: “Satellite Images Show New Construction at North Korea’s Plutonium Production Reactor; Rapid Restar…” – Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, 38 North, [...]

  7. [...] on 38 North show the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in North Korea is visibly being [...]

  8. [...] the implication of an analysis of overhead photographs posted at “38 North,” a blog on Korean affairs produced by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International [...]

  9. John says:

    Everyone wondered why NK said “smaller, lighter, and diversified” I remember the missile they were working on and the Russians a way to get this on a small boats. Take a look here:

    http://www.droidunlimited.blogspot.com/2013/04/nukes-launch-capability-from-a.html

    This is the setup for mounting a nuke ballistic missile onto a cargo ship, and concealing it like a trojan horse. It is believed that this system could exist by now, and work was started in 2007-08. Take a look at the information let me know.

  10. [...] it’s already been corroborated with satellite imagery. On top of that, they said, that they are now “authorized” to launch nuclear attacks on [...]

  11. [...] analysis suggests that North Korea could connect pipes underground to a new pumping station at Yongbyon that has been [...]

  12. [...] material, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a major concern. North Korea appears to have jump-started the process of getting its plutonium reactor at Yongbon back online, but it will possibly take years to produce [...]

  13. [...] Por otro lado, el país parece haber comenzado a realizar obras en su reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tras anunciar esta semana que iba a reiniciar su actividad, de acuerdo a unas imágenes por satélite difundidas este jueves por el Instituto Estados Unidos-Corea en su página web 38north. [...]

  14. [...] Por otro lado, el país parece haber comenzado a realizar obras en su reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tras anunciar esta semana que iba a reiniciar su actividad, de acuerdo a unas imágenes por satélite difundidas este jueves por el Instituto Estados Unidos-Corea en su página web 38north. [...]

  15. Jack Dohen says:

    Just to make a correction. Niether the North South or the United States would loose face.

  16. Jack Dohen says:

    Lets end this “crap’. North Korea has plenty of people who are “starving”. I really do think with the US Military superiority and what is “pointed” at North Korea at present, would worry me if I were living in the north. We are just falling for it”. I do really think North Korea unserstands what the outcome would be for north and its people. I also think the same for the south. Other than distruction ,death what would be accomplished?? Its time for a long awaited “sit down”. Niether the North or South would the United States would loose face. Just the opposite. Who ever leads the way will gain much respect from the North South and the “WORLD”. Anyone can “throw” a punch, that doesn’t take “brains”. “Listening” takes brains. If we all would just “listen” we wouldn’t have to worry about “wars” that innocent suffer for. All of you, pull out the “chairs” and sit down. Sit down in “anyones house”. Concerned Citizen of The World.

  17. [...] material, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a major concern. North Korea appears to have jump-started the process of getting its plutonium reactor at Yongbon back online, but it will possibly take years to [...]

  18. Ken says:

    This reminds me of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960’s. Unfortunately this may have a very different ending. A way must be found to keep these nuts from coming to power and putting the entire world in jeopardy.

  19. [...] Por otro lado, el país parece haber comenzado a realizar obras en su reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tras anunciar esta semana que iba a reiniciar su actividad, de acuerdo a unas imágenes por satélite difundidas este jueves por el Instituto Estados Unidos-Corea en su página web 38north. [...]

  20. [...] images satellites diffusées par le site internet 38North, spécialiste de la Corée du Nord, montrent que des travaux ont repris sur le site de Yongbyon [...]

  21. [...] Por otro lado, el país parece haber comenzado a realizar obras en su reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tras anunciar esta semana que iba a reiniciar su actividad, de acuerdo a unas imágenes por satélite difundidas este jueves por el Instituto Estados Unidos-Corea en su página web 38north. [...]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.