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Asia

North Korean nuclear reactor may have been operating at low power, experts

Recent satellite images suggest that North Korea's five-megawatt reactor at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex may have resumed operations. DW speaks to analyst and physicist David Albright about the findings.

Published on April 30, a report by Dr. David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said the imagery showed several "signatures" of low-level activity. Last year, the institute said the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon - seen as North Korea's main source of weapons-grade plutonium - appeared to have been partially or completely shut down, possibly for renovations.

38 North, a program of the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, said in a recent report they estimated that Pyongyang currently possesses anywhere between 10 to 16 nuclear weapons, and is able to put these weapons on top of at least medium-range missiles, which are able to hit most targets in Japan and South Korea.

In a DW interview, ISIS President Albright spoke about the indications that led to this conclusion and what this could mean in terms of North Korea's capability to expand its nuclear arsenal.

Yongbyon Atomanlage Nordkorea 2008

'The reactor may have been operating at low power or intermittently since September 2014,' said Albright

DW: What do the latest satellite images reveal about North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex?

David Albright: The analysis of recent satellite imagery taken in January, February, March, and April 2015 shows that the 5MWe reactor may be operating at low power or intermittently. Additionally, the winter imagery shows that the centrifuge plant has likely operated and that North Korea may be preparing for additional renovations at this site.

What are you basing t­­­hese conclusions on?

This assessment is based on the observation of signatures visible through satellite imagery that ISIS purchased from commercial vendors. More specifically, the signatures that suggest partial or intermittent operation derive from the analysis of melting snow patterns on the reactor and turbine buildings as well as the presence of a weak stream of warm water being discharged from the 5MWe reactor's discharge pipeline.

What does this say about North Korea's nuclear capabilities, especially in terms of their capability to raise the number of nuclear weapons?

There are several scenarios. One possible scenario is that North Korea ends nuclear testing in the future but continues and perhaps accelerates its production of fissile material. Under this scenario, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons stockpile could continue to grow to as much as the 50-100 weapons outlined in medium and high-end scenarios with very limited qualitative improvements in that stockpile.

Moreover, despite its technological limits, given the assessment of Pyongyang's current level of miniaturization, such a stockpile would be able to arm a large number of selected delivery systems in the North's inventory, particularly the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) able to reach South Korea and Japan.

Given that the reactor was believed to have been shut down just recently, how likely is it that it has been restarted in such short period of time?

It is important to note that the reactor may have been operating at low power or intermittently since September 2014 - when we thought it shut down.

Who is providing North Korea with the necessary technology and raw material to accomplish this?

China is its main purchasing platform, but North Korea also buys European, including German, US, and Japanese, equipment in China.

David Albright is a physicist, as well as founder and President of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. He has written numerous assessments on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world.