Satellite images taken by Airbus Defence and Space and analyzed by a monitoring group suggest North Korea has been making rapid upgrades to infrastructure at the country’s only-known nuclear reactor. Watchdog group 38 North says the images were taken on June 21 and show improvements to the nation’s Nuclear Scientific Research Center at a “rapid pace”, despite vague promises of “complete denuclearization” the same month.
Yongbyon is home to reactors used for producing plutonium, which fuels the country’s weapons, and for the generation of electricity for civilian use. The authors caution that these images are not proof that Kim Jong Un has plans to renege on his pledge to the US, but what the updates are for still remains unclear.
"There is actually no agreement in place that obligates specific steps on denuclearization. So far, moves have been unilateral gestures," Jenny Town, research analyst with 38 North, told IFLScience. "Until a deal is in place that specifies steps needed by both parties, I would expect operations to continue at key facilities."
Modifications started in March to the system used to cool the 5-megawatt electric (MWe) plutonium and now looks to be complete from the outside. However, it remains unclear whether the reactor is operating and, if so, at what level.
"Improvements to cooling system infrastructure are important as they should improve production capability of the 5 MWe plutonium and may be needed to bring the ELWR online, which would expand North Korea’s plutonium production program," said Town.
A new channel from the nearby Kuryong River has been dug out. Designed to serve as a cooling mechanism for Yongbyon reactors, the river is at intended design levels and flowing through the dam at capacity. The authors note riverbed dredging continues upstream of the reactor area as well.