Renewed activity at North Korea nuclear reactor ‘deeply troubling,’ IAEA says

Renewed activity at North Korea nuclear reactor ‘deeply troubling,’ IAEA says


North Korea appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, the United Nations atomic watchdog said in an annual report, highlighting the isolated nation’s efforts to expand its arsenal.

The signs of operation at the 5-megawatt reactor, which is seen as capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, were the first to be spotted since late 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in its report released in late August 2021.

“Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation,” the IAEA report said of the reactor at Yongbyon, a complex at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program. (Pictured: People at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, watch a news program showing a satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear site in North Korea.)

More plutonium could help North Korea make smaller nuclear weapons to fit on its ballistic missiles, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

“The bottom line is North Korea wants to improve the number and quality of its nuclear weapons,” he said.

While limited intelligence makes it impossible to know the number of North Korean nuclear weapons, Albright estimated the country has the capacity to produce material for four to six bombs a year.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said the report “underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy.” The U.S. continues to seek dialogue with North Korea to discuss the report and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.

The IAEA has not had access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009. The regime subsequently pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons program and soon resumed nuclear testing. Its last nuclear test was in 2017.

The IAEA now monitors North Korea largely through satellite imagery.

Commercial satellite imagery shows water discharge, supporting the conclusion that the reactor is running again, said Jenny Town, director of the U.S.-based 38 North project, which monitors North Korea.

“No way to know why the reactor wasn’t operating previously — although work has been ongoing on the water reservoir over the past year to ensure sufficient water for the cooling systems,” she said. “The timing seems a little strange to me, given the tendency for flooding in coming weeks or months that could affect reactor operations.”

38 North previously said that floods in August 2021 may have damaged pump houses linked to Yongbyon, highlighting how vulnerable the nuclear reactor’s cooling systems are to extreme weather.

So far in 2021, seasonal rains have caused floods in some areas, according to North Korean state media, but there have been no reports of threats to the site, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.

At a 2019 summit in Vietnam with then-U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for relief from a range of international sanctions over the regime’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The U.S. rejected the deal because Yongbyon is only part of the North’s nuclear program, and Kim’s offer was not enough of a concession to warrant loosening so many sanctions.

President Biden’s administration has said it reached out to North Korea to offer talks, but Pyongyang has said it has no interest in negotiating without a change in U.S. policy.

In June 2021, the IAEA flagged indications of possible reprocessing work at Yongbyon to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel that could be used in nuclear weapons.

In its annual report, the agency said the duration of that apparent work, from mid-February to early July, suggested a full batch of spent fuel was handled, in contrast to the shorter time needed for waste treatment or maintenance.

“The new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and the radiochemical (reprocessing) laboratory are deeply troubling,” the report said.

There were also indications of mining and concentration activities at a uranium mine and plant at Pyongsan and activity at a suspected covert enrichment facility in Kangson, the IAEA noted.

It is a safe bet that North Korea intends any newly separated plutonium for weapons, said Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He noted that in a 2021 speech Kim gave a long list of advanced weapons under development, including more nuclear bombs.

“North Korea’s appetite for warheads is not yet sated, it seems,” Pollack said.