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North Korea Restarting Its 5 MW Reactor

By
11 September 2013


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

New commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility indicates that Pyongyang is probably restarting its 5 MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor. Since announcing in early April 2013 its intention to restart this reactor, work has progressed rapidly over the spring and summer to bring the facility back into operation. In June 2013, 38 North predicted that the reactor would be ready for restart by the end of August.

Satellite imagery from August 31, 2013 shows white steam rising from a building near the reactor hall that houses the gas-graphite reactor’s steam turbines and electric generators. The reactor generates electricity by using the heat from the nuclear reaction in the core to create steam that spins the turbines. The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation.

The 5 MWe reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.

Construction Completed

North Korea completed the 5 MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor in the 1980s. After the first nuclear crisis, North Korea agreed to shutdown the reactor under the 1994 Agreed Framework. When that arrangement collapsed in 2002, Pyongyang restarted the reactor only to disable it once again under the terms of a Six Party Talks agreement, concluding in the televised demolition of the facility’s cooling tower in June 2008. Between 1985-1994 and 2002-2007, the reactor produced 34-36 kilograms of plutonium, enough for about a dozen nuclear weapons.

In early April 2013, North Korea announced that it would restart the facilities at Yongbyon, including the 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor “without delay.” Shortly after the announcement, 38 North noted Pyongyang did not need to rebuild the cooling tower, but could instead connect the existing reactor to a newly built pump-house near the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) also under construction at the site. (North Korea constructed a copy of the Yongbyon reactor in Syria that used a pump-house sited on a river instead of a cooling tower.) Subsequent satellite imagery published by 38 North confirmed this activity as well as a rapid effort over the summer to restart the reactor. At the time, 38 North noted that the reactor may be “1-2 months from start-up”—August 2013.

White Steam Rising

North Korea now appears to have put the reactor into operation. New commercial satellite imagery from August 31 shows white steam rising from a building near the reactor hall. The building in question houses the gas-graphite reactor’s steam turbines and electric generators. IAEA officials, including then Director General Hans Blix, visited the building in 1992, examining the turbines and electrical generators located on the building’s second floor. It is possible to match video footage of the interior with exterior images of the building in satellite images, based on the distinct pattern of the windows.

The reactor generates electricity by using the heat from the nuclear reaction in the core to create steam that spins the turbines. The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation. (In the past, steam emissions from the cooling tower were one among many indicators that the reactor was operating. This is no longer possible now that North Korea uses the river and pump-house for secondary cooling.)

The 5 MWe reactor is capable of producing 6 kilograms of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.

Figure 1. Steam seen coming from the electrical power generating building.

Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. A steam turbine inside the electrical power building. 

Image from a 1992 Hans Blix Video via ISIS.

Figure 3. Ground view of the 5 MWe reactor showing the external elevated steam line.

Image courtesy of IAEA via ISIS.

Reader Feedback

94 Responses to “North Korea Restarting Its 5 MW Reactor”

  1. [...] the reactor to a newly built cooling pump-house (plus a new experimental LWR) was seen from satellite imagery. The 5 MWe reactor has been in operation since September of this year. North Korean disarmament [...]

  2. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  3. [...] the reactor to a newly built cooling pump-house (plus a new experimental LWR) was seen from satellite imagery. The 5 MWe reactor has been in operation since September of this [...]

  4. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  5. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  6. [...] orders of magnitude more tragic. Satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear facility suggests that North Korea is restarting its five-megawatt gas-graphite reactor. The reactor is capable of producing roughly six kilograms of plutonium a year—enough for one or [...]

  7. [...] white steam emitting from North Korea’s main nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The site hosts the 5MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor, which uses steam turbines for electricity. The image is indicative of the reactor’s electrical [...]

  8. [...] the 5MW reactor at Yongbyon. The story was broken by Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis in a post at 38North; David Albright and Robert Avagyan caught it at the Institute for Science and International [...]

  9. [...] complex, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said in a [...]

  10. [...] jungen Kim treffen darf) und wer eher an echten Informationen interessiert ist, der konnte sich mit dem Reaktor in Yongbyon auseinandersetzen. Heute gab es dann noch gute Nachrichten aus Kaesong, aber dazu habe ich [...]

  11. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  12. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  13. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  14. [...] ago that it would restart key operations at its Yongbyon nuclear facility “without delay.” The report from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies [...]

  15. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  16. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  17. [...] ago that it would restart key operations at its Yongbyon nuclear facility “without delay.” The report from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies [...]

  18. [...] from August 31 show two plumes of white steam rising from a turbine building next to the reactor, according to a report from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. North Korea stated its intention to [...]

  19. [...] restarting its 5 MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor,” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis reported exclusively this week on the blog 38 North, which is affiliated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins [...]

  20. [...] indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation,” wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis on 38 North, the website of the Washington-based [...]

  21. [...] analizadas por el “US-Corea del Instituto”, de la Universidad John Hopkins,  la instalación nuclear de Yongbyon en Corea del Norte se ha “probablemente reiniciado.&#8221… En abril de 2013, el país había anunciado su intención de trabajar para la reactivación de este [...]

  22. [...] its 5 MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor,” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis reported exclusively this week on the blog 38 North, which is affiliated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins [...]

  23. [...] 어제 발표된 영변 핵시설이 가동된다는 지적은 좐스 홉킨스 대학 미국.한국연구소(U.S.-Korea Institute) 가 입수한 위성 이미지입니다. [...]

  24. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  25. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  26. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  27. [...] a building near the reactor hall that houses steam turbines and electric generators, according to a report from the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International [...]

  28. [...] on the 38 North website, the report by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins says that analysis of the color and volume [...]

  29. [...] a building near the reactor hall that houses steam turbines and electric generators, according to a report from the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International [...]

  30. [...] a building near the reactor hall that houses steam turbines and electric generators, according to a report from the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International [...]

  31. [...] indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation,” wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis on 38 North, the website of the Washington-based [...]

  32. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  33. [...] indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation,” wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis on 38 North, the Read [...]

  34. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  35. [...] report from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, satellite imagery shows white steam rising from a turbine near the reactor. The steam is a by-product of the facility’s operation and [...]

  36. [...] satelitales del reactor nuclear de Yongbyon, tomadas el 31 de agosto. Las fotos, publicadas en la página dedicada a los asuntos norcoreanos 38North, muestran un vapor blanco que sale de un edificio cercano a la sala del reactor donde están las [...]

  37. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  38. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute [...]

  39. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  40. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  41. [...] indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at [...]

  42. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

  43. [...] report, which was published on the 38 North website on Wednesday, was written by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The institute uses [...]

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