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North Korea shuts down plutonium reactor

Apr 06,2018
North Korea has likely shut down the nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon research site in North Pyongyan Province and is working on major construction projects nearby, according to analysis of new satellite images.

Commercial satellite imagery from March 30 indicates that North Korea may have shut down the 5-megawatt plutonium production reactor, as steam plumes at the Generator Hall are no longer clearly visible, reported 38 North, a North Korea analysis website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The website reported one month ago, based on satellite imagery from Feb. 25, that the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex continued to show signs of operation, so the shutdown is relatively recent.

A major excavation project was started near the reactor’s cooling water outfall, it added.

Taken along with the North’s recent efforts to dam the river below the area to create a reservoir, this could indicate an attempt to provide a more steady flow of water into the facility.

The website pointed out that, “This would allow for the reactor to run more continuously and safely in the future.”

The satellite imagery also pointed to new truck activity at the reactor, with an “unusual number of large vehicles” parked near the rear side of it, some of them with tanks, cylinders or casks. It also shows what may be a mobile crane covered with a tarp nearby.

The purpose of the increased number of vehicles is unclear, but the website said it could be maintenance or repairs, the transfer of spent fuel rods to a radiochemical laboratory for reprocessing or delivering fresh fuel to the reactor. It added that despite the apparent reactor shutdown, “there was no evidence of plutonium reprocessing taking place at the radiochemical laboratory.”

The exact reasons for the shutdown were unclear.

Satellite imagery also showed that the military encampment at the site was cleared, which was first observed on Feb. 25. Continuing construction work was observed on building in front of the experimental light water reactor, which may be a laboratory or for engineering support, but “there are no obvious signs that the reactor is approaching operational status,” it added.

The apparent shutdown of the 5-megawatt reactor comes ahead of a summit between the two Koreas scheduled for late April and one between the North and United States sometime afterward, following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s indication of a new willingness to discuss denuclearization and pledge to refrain from further nuclear or missile tests during the talks. North Korea is known to have reprocessed plutonium at its 5-megawatt reactor and produced highly enriched uranium at the uranium centrifuge facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst who led U.S. delegations to North Korea, wrote in a column for 38 North Tuesday that Pyongyang is clearly signaling “a very different posture than it did last year.”

Carlin noted that “Pyongyang has virtually stopped referring to its nuclear program over the past three weeks,” ever since South Korean envoys visited Washington after meeting with Kim.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]