NPR: On Eve Of 2nd Trump-Kim Summit, Is North Korean Reactor Producing Plutonium?

Credit: Satellite image by Planet Labs taken Feb. 19. Graphic by Geoffrey Brumfiel and Alyson Hurt/NPR

February 25, 2019 10:50 AM ET
GEOFF BRUMFIEL

North Korea’s main nuclear reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium may be operating, just days before this week’s summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Satellite images of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center from Planet, a San-Francisco based company, indicate the main 5-megawatt reactor on the site is running, according to Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

“It’s really business as usual at Yongbyon at the moment,” Lewis says. “People show up for work, and material comes in, and it looks pretty much like it’s looked for the last 10 or 15 years.”

But without on-the-ground inspections, it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s happening, and others are not so sure the reactor is switched on.

“If I had to bet, I’d say it’s most likely not operating,” says Frank Pabian, an imagery analyst with 38 North, a website focused on analysis of North Korea.

The questions surround what appears to be melted river ice downstream from the reactor. Images taken most recently, on Feb. 19 and Feb. 22, clearly show a lack of ice, and water flowing from a cistern attached to the reactor’s cooling system. Lewis believes heat from the operating reactor is likely melting the ice.

Pabian, meanwhile, thinks the melting could be a natural result of the river’s rapid flow just south of the reactor. He says there are other signs the reactor isn’t running, such as a lack of steam coming from an adjacent turbine building.

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On Eve Of 2nd Trump-Kim Summit, Is North Korean Reactor Producing Plutonium?
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On Eve Of 2nd Trump-Kim Summit, Is North Korean Reactor Producing Plutonium?
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North Korea's main nuclear reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium may be operating, just days before this week's summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.