Pyongyang restarts Yongbyon nuclear reactor meant for the nuclear weapons program, IAEA

For the first time since 2018, North Korea has restarted its facilities to make fuel for atomic bombs in recent months, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report.

The disclosure marks a full stop after the process of rapprochement with Seoul and Washington opened three years ago and highlights Pyongyang’s plans to continue developing its nuclear program in the absence of common positions that will even allow the dialogue on denuclearization, stalled since 2019, to be resumed.

IAEA said it had detected “deeply troubling” indications that a critical nuclear reactor at North Korea’s main Yongbyon complex has been in operation since July, including the release of cooling water. The report is based on satellite imagery and other sources,

The U.N. nuclear watchdog submitted the report to the Governors on Friday. The report covers new developments of the five-megawatt reactor from which the North had obtained spent fuel rods to extract plutonium in the past. Plutonium is used to make nuclear bombs.

The report coincided with the efforts of Seoul and Washington to resume dialogue with the North, following its furious reactions to the recently concluded US-Korea annual military exercises.

The agency detected indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the reactor’s operation, early July 2021. The report says that there were no indications of such a reactor operation from early December 2018 to the start of July this year.

The report also said that the steam plant, which serves the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon complex, operated for approximately five months, from mid-February 2021 until early July 2021. The plant is used to provide heat to a fuel rod reprocessing facility.

As per the report, the duration of the steam plant and Radiochemical Laboratory operation in 2021 is significantly longer than that observed in the past during possible waste treatment or maintenance activities.

“The five-month timeframe is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from the 5MW(e) reactor,” says the report.

“It is customary to refer to the power of a military nuclear reactor as its maximum thermal output, which can be easily converted to plutonium production potential. Recent news reports, as well as the IAEA, have instead described the reactor at Yongbyon as ‘5 MW(e)’, which refers to the rating of a tiny electrical generator attached to the reactor. There is no sign that the generator has ever been used. The Yongbyon reactor’s maximum thermal output is ~25 MW(t),” as per Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Implications

“The 25 MW (thermal) Yongbyon reactor is well known to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from as early as the late 1980s. However, this was the first time the IAEA has had evidence of the reactor being operational since late 2018 when spent fuel rods were unloaded from it.

It has been estimated that Yongbyon can produce enough plutonium in a year for one or two nuclear warheads,” says Robert E. Kelley (United States) is a Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI.

North Korea announced it had withdrawn from the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003 and no longer considered itself subject to IAEA inspections. Even if there is no legal consensus among diplomatic bodies over whether this move was legal and final, IAEA inspectors have been excluded from the country since 2009.

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