North Korea Is Building an Experimental Light Water Reactor

John Kim, Jan. 18, 2016, 7:54 a.m.

North Korea is making "slow progress" in building an experimental light water reactor at its nuclear site in Yongbyon, the website 38 North claimed last week. The website, which is run by Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., concluded the facility is "edging closer to becoming operational." 

It offered two reasons based on satellite images taken on Jan. 11. First, "the completion of two channels that will feed water into a cistern connected to the reactor's pump house for its cooling system" and second “the completion of the reactor's electric transformer yard with the installation of two new transformers."

"However, predicting when construction will finish and [the reactor] will be become operational has proven to be difficult," the website admitted. The exterior seems to have been completed last October, but it "remains unclear whether the North has succeeded in fabricating the fuel assemblies necessary to power the reactor."

Once completed, the facility could help the North produce much-needed electricity and lead to the construction of further reactors. It could also produce some fissile material for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said analysis of the satellite images suggests the North is operating its existing 5 MW graphite moderated reactor at Yongbyon at a lower power level or intermittently.

Last year's satellite photos showed hot water being discharged from the reactor. But recent ones show no such discharges, the institute's David Albright, said.  But he speculated that since there is no snow on the roofs of the centrifugal separator and adjunct buildings, the North probably keeps operating them to enrich uranium. 

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