North: Probable Production of Additional Plutonium in Yongbyon

Elias Hubbard
July 16, 2017

According to satellite imagery recorded between September 2106 and June 2017, North Korea has stepped up its production of weapons-grade plutonium at a faster rate than previously asserted by military experts.

Recent thermal images show intermittent activity at the radiochemical laboratory that suggests the production of "an undetermined amount of plutonium" at the North's Yongbyon nuclear facility, 38 North said Friday. Officials have said it is poised to carry out a sixth at any time.

Satellite images of one of the plant's installations revealed an increase in thermal activity that could be the result of centrifuge operations aimed at enriching uranium so it can be used in bombs, it is said.

North Korea ramped up uranium enrichment in September, leading experts to conclude that the North could produce six nuclear bombs per year, and the International Atomic Energy Association reported in March that North Korea has more than doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility in recent years, pushing nuclear material production into a "new phase".

Increased thermal activity was also noted at Yongbyon's uranium enrichment facility, but it was unclear whether this indicated a push to increase supplies, possibly for weapons, or if it was part of maintenance operations.

Experts at 38 North estimated in April that North Korea could have as many as 20 nuclear bombs and could produce one more each month. With each test, the explosive yield increases, enhancing North Korea's ability to rain down devastation on those countries it considers enemies.

Uranium occurs naturally in the earth's crust and is enriched into fuel for nuclear reactors.

If confirmed, the development would mark an advance in the North's nuclear weapons program because uranium enrichment is harder to detect than plutonium enrichment.

Plutonium is found only in trace amounts in nature but is a by-product of the nuclear power industry.

It said the increase could be due to short-term activity such as the heating of pipes to prevent freezing but "any activity at the ELWR is cause for concern and its operational status bears continued monitoring as it would be an indicator of North Korean ongoing intentions and capabilities".

The site's observations include the likelihood of Yongbyon's increase in the manufacture of enriched uranium, another key ingredient used by the DPRK to make nuclear weapons.

The nuclear bomb that was dropped over the Japanese city of Nagasaki at the end of World War II, killing tens of thousands of people, was filled with plutonium.

Pyongyang said its penultimate test in January 2016 was of a hydrogen bomb, something experts have treated with skepticism.

North Korea, which says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself, is subject to multiple sets of United Nations sanctions over its weapons programmes.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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