Satellite images, which were captured by Maxar in April and May this year, show North Korea has restarted construction of the second reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex after years of inactivity, Middlebury experts have said. Institute of International Studies who analyzed the photos. .
The reactor is about 10 times larger than the existing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which has been in operation since the late 1980s.
U.S. officials are also aware of and closely monitoring recent activity at Yongbyon, according to a source familiar with the situation, who noted that North Korea was not trying to hide its efforts to restart construction of the reactor in question. .
It appears to be an outward demonstration of North Korea’s nuclear progress and ambitions, the source said, adding that the new construction of the Yongbyon reactor aligns with Pyongyang’s goal of proving it is a nuclear-armed state.
Experts say it is difficult to estimate how quickly North Korea could complete construction of the reactor.
But once operational, it could allow North Korea to increase its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons by 10, according to Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute.
Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment when asked if there was any specific intelligence to suggest that North Korea had taken further steps to complete construction of the reactor at Yongbyon. .
“However, we have been very clear about the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) nuclear and missile programs, our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, Japan and the American homeland, and our common goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Meiners added.
North Korea halted construction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in 1994 as part of its agreement with the United States. At that time, the reactor was still years away from completion, Lewis said.
Only very limited construction activity was seen at the site in subsequent years, but Lewis told CNN he and his fellow researchers believe recent satellite images provide “the first unambiguous indicator that North Korea is about to complete the reactor”.
Specifically, images taken by Maxar show North Korea “connecting the secondary cooling loop of the 50 MW(e) reactor to a pumping station on the river”, he said.
“In the image dated April 20, construction equipment is visible, as are what appear to be pipe segments. By May 7, North Korea had buried the pipe,” Lewis added.
“Connecting the cooling loop helps explain other activity seen at the 50MW(e) reactor in recent years,” Lewis told CNN, pointing to the observed demolition of a building last year believed to house a cooling pond for spent fuel.
“The connection of the secondary cooling loop suggests, in hindsight, that the demolition of the exposed spent fuel building was an early sign that North Korea intends to complete construction of the reactor,” CNN told CNN. .
The source familiar with the matter also said there was a lot of preparatory activity needed before a country could start building a nuclear reactor. “The preparatory activities speak of intention, planning and long-standing goals,” the source added.
The assessment concludes that Kim Jong Un’s government is making preparations at another facility, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and could be ready to conduct a test by the end of May.
Signs of personnel and vehicle activity at the site have been seen by satellite imagery, but officials do not know whether the regime placed nuclear material in any of the test site’s underground tunnels, which states United are watching closely.
If North Korea conducts a test, it would be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.