North Korea Nuclear Tests Risk Mountain Collapse That Could Leak Out Radiation

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A large mountain in North Korea may be at risk of collapse due to nuclear tests, which could leak radiation into the surrounding area including China.

On Sunday, September 3, North Korea claimed to have conducted its sixth nuclear test, a possible two-stage hydrogen bomb. This was the fifth test at the Punggye-ri test site in the north-east of the country, beneath a mountain close to the border with China.

The location was confirmed by the University of Science and Technology of China. Using data from 112 earthquake monitoring centers in China, scientists said they were confident the test had been performed at Punggye-ri. A second tremor eight minutes later suggested a tunnel or cave used for the test had collapsed.

"The Earthquake Laboratory of China University of Science and Technology has accurately identified all DPRK's nuclear test sites since it conducted its first test in October 2006, through its high-precision positioning system, revealing the geographical network of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear explosion infrastructure," a statement from the university read.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Wang Naiyan from the China Institute of Atomic Energy said that if the claims were true, there was a risk of a major environmental disaster. Part of the mountain above the site may be at risk of collapse if the tests continue, exposing deadly radiation from underground. This could leak not only over North Korea, but China too.

The location of the Punggye-ri test site. Google Maps

“We call it ‘taking the roof off,’” said Naiyan. “If the mountain collapses and the hole is exposed, it will let out many bad things.”

A similar idea has been touted before. In February last year, we reported on how a nearby volcano called Mount Paektu was at risk of erupting from repeated tests. It has shown signs of unrest and the few volcanologists who have visited the site are worried about the nearby seismic activity.

This latest test is thought to have measured 6.3 in magnitude (M), leading some to suggest it may not have been as impressive as North Korea claimed. A true hydrogen bomb test is thought to produce an M 7.0 tremor. However, this is still more powerful than the last test in September 2016, which produced an M 5.3 tremor.

It's unclear if North Korea is aware of the environmental dangers posed by its tests. Taking precautions for the future, China said it is currently monitoring for radiation leaks, but none have been found so far.

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