Plutonium Restart at Yongbyon

Today, IAEA head Yukiya Amano told a closed-door meeting of the agency’s board of governors: “Activities have been observed at the site that are consistent with an effort to restart the 5 MWe reactor” with the disclaimer “however, as the agency has no access to the site, it is not possible for us to conclusively determine whether the reactor has been restarted.” He later told a new conference that the release of steam from vents and the apparent discharge into a nearby river indicate possible testing. This is the most recent in a string of speculations regarding the 5 MWe reactor, following 38 North’s satellite imagery since February and South Korea’s Intelligence Service closed-door report to parliament in October.

The probable restart comes at the end of a tense year for nuclear diplomacy which included a widely condemned North Korean nuclear test in February.

North Korea’s nuclear programme is centered around its 5 mega-watt electric (MWe) gas-graphite reactor at theYongbyon nuclear complex. The research facilities in Yongbyon were built by the USSR in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. It became operational in 1986, using natural uranium for fuel. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing plant which could extract plutonium from the reactor, potentially for weaponization. By 1992, North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe reactor was producing approximately 6 kg of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year.

The reactor was shut down in 1994 under the Agreed Framework, restarted in 2002 when those discussions collapsed, and closed down again in 2007 under the Six Party Talks, culminating in the televised demolition of a cooling tower in June 2008.

Disabled nuclear fuel fabrication facility machine shop at Yongbyon | Image: Wikipedia; Edit: Morgan Potts
Disabled nuclear fuel fabrication facility machine shop at Yongbyon | Image: Wikipedia; Edit: Morgan Potts

38 North noticed construction via satellite imagery at the Yongbyon plutonium reactor in 2013-02 and suggested that the construction might be to restore the cooling system and restart the 5 MWe reactor. There was speculation on 38 North that it was not necessary to rebuild the cooling tower, instead connecting the cooling system to the pump-house near the Experimental LWR.

The KCNA announced on 2013-04-02 that it would be “readjusting and restarting all nuclear facilities in [Y]ongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5 MW graphite moderated reactor”.

The reactor appears to have become operational once again in September 2013. The implications of a once-more nuclear North Korea are tough to swallow for US policymakers, who continue to cite the state’s nuclear activities as a “serious cause for concern“. North Korean state news outlet Rodong Sinmun cries hypocrisy regarding the US calls for a “nuclear free world”, citing the dangers posed by the American atomic invention and the need for the world (i.e. the US) to denuclearize, yet supports Pyongyang’s pursuit of deterrence. In the absence of bi-/multi-lateral discussions and subsequent confidence building measures, neither state will make concessions and the DPRK will resume nuclearization, beginning with this unapologetic plutonium restart.

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