Think Tank Sees Signs North Korea Is Expanding Its Nuclear Weapons Work

Satellite imagery of the Yongbyon Fuel Fabrication plant captured on July 28, which a think tank says shows a North Korean gas centrifuge plant is being expanded. (Photo: ISIS)

While Washington is focused on Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s political unrest and Iran’s new president, what is North Korea up to? One Washington-based think tank believes the outlaw regime in Pyongyang is increasing its ability to enrich uranium, the key to its nuclear weapons program.

“Recent satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea indicates that it has apparently expanded a building in the fuel fabrication complex that houses a gas centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment,” the Institute for Science and International Security said in a report released this week. “The area is now covered by an extended roof that is roughly twice the size of the previous one.”

North Korean officials have claimed the facility is used to produce low enriched uranium that fuels an experimental light-water reactor. But ISIS says some of those materials “could have been further enriched at a secret centrifuge site to produce weapon-grade uranium.”

ISIS describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan institution dedicated to informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security.” The organization’s top priority is “stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology to other nations and terrorists, bringing about greater transparency of nuclear activities worldwide, strengthening the international non-proliferation regime, and achieving deep cuts in nuclear arsenals.”

ISIS analysts, after examining its own satellite imagery and Google Earth images, that “construction of the centrifuge building extension appears to have begun sometime in March 2013.”

North Korean officials claim those projects were aimed at “readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor.”

The think tank also has concluded the imagery shows “a doubling of available floor space … could allow a doubling of the number of centrifuges installed.”

“ North Korea stated in 2010 that the plant contained about 2,000 centrifuges with an enrichment output of 8,000 separative work units (swu) per year,” states the ISIS report. “Thus, North Korea could in theory install 2,000 more centrifuges for a total of 4,000 centrifuges with a total declared capacity of 16,000 swu per year in this expanded building.” The think tank also says imagery shows construction at other parts of the facility.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, please call your offices…

Digital Globe imagery from May 3 that a Washington group says shows construction work at several parts of a North Korean fuel fabrication facility. (Photo: ISIS)

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
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