IAEA Concerned Over North Korea’s Apparent Reopening of Plutonium-Producing Reactor

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North Korea appears to have resumed operation of its five-megawatt electric reactor that was used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Monday.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said there are indications of the reactor operating at the Yongbyon site and “intermittent activity” at the radiochemical laboratory.

Grossi’s speech to the Board of Governors follows the IAEA report [pdf] on Sept. 7, which stated that North Korea may have been expanding key facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“We have observed indications that the reported centrifuge enrichment facility at Yongbyon continues to operate and is now externally complete, expanding the building’s available floor space by approximately one-third,” he said.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc., a uranium enrichment plant is seen at North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex, Sept. 18, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The completion of several new buildings near the light water reactor has also been observed, with “ongoing indications of activities” at the Kangson complex and the Pyongsan mine and concentration plant, Grossi said.

“At the 50Mwe reactor, construction of which stopped in 1994, we have observed the dismantling of buildings and the removal of some material, likely for re-use in other construction projects,” he added.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanctions relief following his denuclearization talks with former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. But the talks eventually stalled in 2019.

The IAEA said in its report that excavation work commenced in March near Adit 3 at a nuclear site near the settlement of Punggye-ri to reopen the test tunnel after its partial demolition in May 2018.

“Excavation work at Adit 3 was possibly completed by May 2022. Several timber support buildings were constructed concurrently near the entrance to Adit 3, and also in the support area located to the north,” it added.

Grossi described the reopening of the nuclear site as “deeply troubling” and called on North Korea to end its nuclear program, citing the regime’s violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The North Korean regime demolished the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site in May 2018 as a sign of its commitment to end nuclear testing. But South Korean and American intelligence reported spotting construction work at the site.

IAEA’s inspectors have not been able to enter North Korea since 2009, and it now uses satellite imagery to monitor the country’s nuclear activities.

North Korea has conducted a series of missile launches this year, including one involving its largest intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-17, all of which are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Kim regime recently adopted a new law allowing it to conduct a nuclear strike “automatically” against any “hostile forces” posing an imminent threat to the nation, state mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency reported.

Kim vowed that his country will “never give up nuclear weapons,” regardless of the military situation on the Korean Peninsula and even if North Korea is subjected to “100 years of sanctions.”

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