Quick access to top menu Direct access to main contents Quick access to page bottom

North Korea’s New Nuke Reactor, 4-5 Times More Plutonium Detected: What’s Going On?

North Korea Accelerates Operation of New Nuclear Facility at Yongbyon
IAEA Detects Increased Activity and Warm Water Discharge at Yongbyon

北, ‘핵탄두 증산’ 시동?…영변 新핵시설 가동때 플루토늄 추출 4~5배 증가[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
A view of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea, photographed in June 2008. Reuters/Yonhap News

Reports have surfaced suggesting that North Korea is expediting the operation of a new nuclear facility in Yongbyon, with the potential to produce the essential plutonium required for nuclear weapons manufacturing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made an announcement on December 21 (local time) regarding increased activity and the release of warm water near the experimental light-water reactor (LWR) within the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea’s Pyonganbuk-do region. This indicates the initiation of operations for this reactor.

Concerns of Plutonium Production

As reported by Reuters, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, during a regular board meeting held in Vienna, Austria, stated, “We had observed increased levels of activity at, and near, the Light Water Reactor (LWR) at Yongbyon, and also – since mid-October – a strong water outflow from its cooling system. These observations were consistent with the commissioning of the LWR.”

This development implies the commencement of a process to obtain plutonium, an essential component for the production of nuclear weapons, sparking concerns about a potential escalation in the number of nuclear warheads.

Director General Grossi added, “The discharge of warm water is indicative that the reactor has reached criticality.” The release of warm water from the experimental light-water reactor signifies the activation of a larger light-water reactor in addition to the existing 5MW reactor in Yongbyon.

Potential Increase in Nuclear Weapons Capability

North Korea has a history of reprocessing used fuel from the 5MW reactor in Yongbyon to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons, a process that spanned several years. The 5MW reactor in Yongbyon plays a crucial role in North Korea’s nuclear weapon production, as reprocessing spent fuel rods from this reactor allows for the extraction of plutonium, a critical nuclear weapon component.

In light of the recent indications of test operations at the Yongbyon light-water reactor, U.S. nuclear experts predict that if this reactor becomes fully operational, North Korea’s plutonium production capacity could increase by 4 to 5 compared to its previous levels. This significant boost in capability would substantially enhance their capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons. When coupled with their existing weapons-grade uranium, it could potentially enable the production of up to 10 nuclear weapons annually.

Insights from the former Deputy Director-General of the IAEA

Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General of the IAEA, noted that if North Korea successfully operates the Yongbyon light-water reactor, it could theoretically produce approximately 15 to 20 kilograms of plutonium annually. This represents a three to fourfold increase in production capacity compared to the existing 5-megawatt (MW) reactor.

Heinonen explained that given the assumption that 4 kilograms of plutonium are needed to construct a single nuclear weapon, the production of 15 kilograms in a year could potentially lead to the creation of four nuclear weapons within that timeframe. He emphasized that this scenario indicates a significant escalation.

北, ‘핵탄두 증산’ 시동?…영변 新핵시설 가동때 플루토늄 추출 4~5배 증가[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is holding a press conference ahead of the IAEA regular board meeting in Vienna, Austria, on December 22 (local time). EPA/Yonhap News

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported recent developments at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, noting water discharge from the reactor’s cooling system since mid-October. This facility includes a 5MW(e) graphite-moderated experimental reactor, and North Korea has also constructed an experimental light-water reactor with a capacity of 30MW. The operation of this reactor is a source of international concern due to its potential to produce a significant amount of nuclear material for the manufacture of nuclear warheads.

Director General Grossi observed that the discharged water seems warm, a typical indication of the commissioning phase in new reactors, signifying that the reactor activity is now self-sustaining. Like others, He expressed concern that the experimental light-water reactor can produce plutonium from radioactive nuclear fuel, which can be extracted during the reprocessing stage.

Challenges in Monitoring North Korean Nuclear Facilities

The experimental light-water reactor within the Yongbyon nuclear facility has been suspected to be a facility intended to increase the production of nuclear materials for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Predictions that this light-water reactor would soon transition to an operational state have been frequently raised, and now the IAEA has officially raised the issue.

Since being expelled in April 2009, the IAEA has not been able to access North Korean nuclear facilities directly. As a result, it has primarily been monitoring the North Korean nuclear program through satellite images.

Director General Grossi expressed strong disappointment over North Korea’s persistence with its nuclear program, highlighting it as a blatant breach of UN Security Council resolutions. He strongly urged North Korea to adhere to its obligations under these resolutions and to engage cooperatively with the IAEA. This cooperation, he noted, is crucial for the effective implementation of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

北, ‘핵탄두 증산’ 시동?…영변 新핵시설 가동때 플루토늄 추출 4~5배 증가[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
A satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea. Photo provided by Planet Labs Inc.

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California recently analyzed that there is a high possibility that North Korea’s new reactor is in operation and evaluated that it could become “a significant source of nuclear material.” In addition, the Science and International Security Institute in Washington, D.C., also analyzed in its report in April this year that “it can dramatically increase North Korea’s plutonium quantity with an annual production of about 20kg.” According to the institute’s estimate, depending on the usage of fuel, North Korea can possess between 31 and 96 nuclear warheads.

According to the Defense White Paper published by the Ministry of National Defense earlier this year, North Korea had produced at least 70 kilograms of plutonium through reprocessing of nuclear fuel by last year. It is also known to have a considerable amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU).

Meanwhile, Heinonen, a special researcher, predicted that it would take at least six months to a year for this experimental light-water reactor to go into entire operation.

To produce plutonium, which is the nuclear weapon material that North Korea wants, it needs a preparation period that includes several in-depth tests such as reactor testing, output adjustment, and safe operation of the reactor. Although a small amount of plutonium will be produced during this period, full-scale production will take longer. Therefore, after these procedures are completed, it is predicted that North Korea’s 7th nuclear test, which the world is worried about, could be possible around June next year.

Response from the U.S. State Department and South Korea

The international community, including the U.S. and South Korea, is concerned as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has revealed that North Korea has completed and test-run the experimental light-water reactor (ELWR) in the Yongbyon nuclear complex for the first time in over a decade.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said on December 24, “The government is closely monitoring the situation of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in close coordination with the U.S., and is paying attention to the IAEA Director General’s remarks on the signs of test operation of the experimental light-water reactor on the 21st.”

The official pointed out, “North Korea is continuing its nuclear material production activities in violation of the UN Security Council resolution, and announced at the party plenum at the end of last year that it will exponentially increase the number of nuclear warheads and continue its missile provocations, thereby harming peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and around the world.”

The U.S. State Department also expressed “serious concerns, including safety,” about the signs of test operation of the Yongbyon light-water reactor, saying, “North Korea’s illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a serious threat to international peace and security.”

History of the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex

North Korea has been known to have been building an experimental light-water reactor in Yongbyon since around 2010. Although the construction has been prolonged, far exceeding the original completion date announced by North Korea in 2012, recent expert analyses have frequently suggested that it is nearing operation.

The operation of the Yongbyon nuclear facility could ultimately support North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un’s declaration at the party plenum at the end of last year to exponentially increase the number of nuclear warheads. In addition to plutonium, North Korea is also operating uranium enrichment facilities in Yongbyon and other locations as another means to secure weapons-grade nuclear material. However, it is expected to take more time for the experimental light-water reactor to be fully operational.

By. Hyun Ho Lee

Eugene Park's Profile image




Share it on