September 2016: Monitoring Activities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Site

by David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Allison Lach, and Samta Savla

September 20, 2016

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Commercial satellite imagery from July and August 2016 shows continued activity at the Yongbyon nuclear site, a major site for plutonium and weapon-grade uranium production for nuclear weapons. A recurring mystery is the operational status of the 5 megawatt-electric (MWe) reactor and the amount of plutonium produced there. Recent imagery suggests that its operation remains limited. In addition, a question is when the experimental light water reactor (LWR) will start. This new reactor could make considerably more weapon-grade plutonium than the 5 MWe reactor. Given the importance of plutonium to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, another question remains whether North Korea will seek to boost plutonium production at these two reactors by getting the smaller one to work better and starting the larger one.

The recent campaign to separate plutonium at the Radiochemical Plant may be finished. Recent imagery shows little activity there. An earlier Institute report estimated that North Korea could have separated about 5.5 to 8 kilograms of plutonium during this campaign, which is roughly enough for 1 to 4 nuclear weapons. This level of plutonium production is less than nominal and implies the reactor is not working as well as possible.

The outward construction of the possible tritium separation facility appears to be largely complete. This facility could increase North Korea’s separation of tritium. Tritium is critical to the development and deployment of more powerful thermonuclear weapons, particularly designs aimed at significantly increasing the explosive yield of an atomic explosion.

The full analysis with imagery continues in PDF.

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