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Images Suggest North Korea Expanding Plutonium-Production Capabilities

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site as seen by satellite in 2008. Space-based imagery taken a month ago indicates that Pyongyang is aggressively moving forward with previously announced plans to expand its plutonium-production capabilities at the complex. North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site as seen by satellite in 2008. Space-based imagery taken a month ago indicates that Pyongyang is aggressively moving forward with previously announced plans to expand its plutonium-production capabilities at the complex. (Google Earth)

Recent satellite images show signs of likely work by North Korea on new facilities that could support the production of plutonium for its nuclear-warhead program.

The photographs appear to indicate that Pyongyang is moving ahead aggressively with a previously announced expansion of its plutonium-processing efforts, building what appear to be at least two new fuel plants at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

"They said they were going to do all of this stuff in the spring and they have been doing it step-by-step," Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center, said in a Monday phone interview. "To me it feels methodical and predictable and not surprising."

North Korea has primarily used plutonium-based warheads in its nuclear tests, though there is a chance that the most recent underground explosion in February 2013 used highly-enriched uranium. Independent experts think Pyongyang has enough plutonium stocks on hand to fuel about six more devices, which could constrain its ability to improve nuclear-warhead designs while still leaving enough leftover material to credibly threaten atomic attacks against South Korea or others.

The Dec. 23 image analysis by the expert website "38 North" jibes with other advancements North Korea has made in recent months in its fissile-material production program.

Pyongyang announced last April it would dedicate additional facilities at Yongbyon to generating nuclear-weapon material, including a uranium-enrichment plant, a mothballed Soviet-era reactor and a new light-water reactor. Satellite photographs taken since then strongly suggest the North has reactivated the old five-megawatt graphite reactor, which had been disabled under a now-defunct denuclearization accord.

Analyzing photographs taken from space as recently as Dec. 2, image expert Nick Hansen concluded on 38 North that a likely fuel-fabrication facility for the graphite reactor had been set up inside the same plant built decades previously to supply fuel to the reactor.

Hansen separately identified a potential fuel-assembly facility -- located north of the older fuel-fabrication plant -- that could supply the experimental light-water reactor, or "LWR," which North Korea is thought to have completed or be on the verge of completing. Hansen and Lewis in a joint report for 38 North last May said one of the key factors in whether Pyongyang could operate the light-water reactor would be whether it had enough fuel available to power the facility.

"One of the largest structures at Yongbyon, the building's configuration ... is suitable for the production of LWR fuel assemblies," Hansen wrote in his December analysis. He allowed, however, that the identified structure alternatively could be intended to host a heavy-machinery shop or be used for constructing reactor components.

"If the building is intended to produce fuel assemblies, that process could take several years," he continued. "As a result, the [experimental light-water reactor] may not become operational until late 2015 or 2016."

North Korea would need to build a separate facility to provide material for the light-water reactor, as it utilizes a different type of fuel than the five-megawatt reactor, according to the 38 North report. The expert website is a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Noting that "it's always easy to misidentify buildings when you can't get inside them," Lewis said he had "reasonable confidence" in Hansen's latest report conclusions. Lewis said he was not involved in writing the December analysis.

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