North Korea has restarted the plutonium-production reactor at its Yongbyon Nuclear Facility.
New commercial satellite imagery suggests North Korea has resumed operation of a reactor at its main nuclear site that is used to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program, a US thinktank said on Friday.
Washington’s 38 North project, which monitors North Korea, said previous analysis from 18 January showed signs that North Korea was preparing to restart the reactor at Yongbyon, having unloaded spent fuel rods for reprocessing to produce additional plutonium for its nuclear weapons stockpile.
“Imagery from January 22 shows a water plume (most probably warm) originating from the cooling water outlet of the reactor, an indication that the reactor is very likely operating,” the 38 North website reported Friday.
Currently, most of the river is frozen over except where this water mixes with the river. Currents carry this mix downstream — visible as a plume of ice-free water.
Without being able to measure the water temperature rise or water flow from the reactor, it is impossible to estimate at what power level the reactor is running, although it may be considerable,” the North Korea watchdog said.
Imagery from earlier in the month showing spent fuel rods had been unloaded to be reprocessed into additional plutonium indicated that Pyongyang was preparing to restart the reactor
The graphite-moderated and gas-cooled 5 megawatt electrical reactor was launched in 1986 ostensibly to product electricity — but also produces weapons-grade plutonium.
Its spent fuel rods can be reprocessed into enough plutonium to make one nuclear bomb per year, South Korea’s Yonhap News reports.
North Korea has maintained its nuclear and missile programs in violation of repeated rounds of international sanctions.
News of the apparent reactor restart comes at a time of increasing concern about North Korea’s weapons programs, which could present the new administration of US president Donald Trump with its first major crisis.
A report by leading US-based nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker published by 38 North in September last year estimated North Korea had stockpiles of 32kg to 54kg of plutonium, enough for six to eight bombs, and had the capacity to produce 6kg, or approximately one bomb’s worth, a year.
North Korea also produces highly enriched uranium for atomic bombs and would have had sufficient fissile material for approximately 20 bombs by the end of last year, and the capacity to produce seven more a year, that report said.
In a New Year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his country was close to test launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and state media has said a launch could come at any time.
Trump’s defense secretary plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week and concerns about North Korea are expected to top his agenda.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and its fourth and fifth last year.