North Korea's new nuclear reactor a central issue in Trump-Kim talks

A satellite image of the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North released on July 14, 2017.
A satellite image of the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North released on July 14, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - If US President Donald Trump actually meets Kim Jong Un in the next few months - an encounter that many US officials still doubt will come to pass - his challenge will be much larger than merely persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Trump must also get Pyongyang to give up the factories, reactors and nuclear-enrichment facilities that produce the nuclear fuel needed to build more weapons - even as new satellite evidence suggests that North Korea is expanding its production.

A satellite image shows a new North Korean reactor that appears to be coming online now, after years of construction, according to analysts.

It sits in the Yongbyon nuclear complex, where the North began its nuclear program in the 1960s. Today, the site boasts hundreds of buildings that lie along a loop of the Kuryong River and cover an area of more than 3 square miles.

North Korea insists the reactor is intended to produce electricity for civilian use. But the new reactor can also make plutonium, one of the main fuels used in nuclear arms. It can thus supplement the output of the aging, existing facilities at Yongbyon.

Making bomb fuel in reactors is seen as easier to do than perfecting missiles that can hurl nuclear arms around the globe. While experts clash over how soon the North will develop warheads that can survive the blistering heats of re-entry, they agree that the North has already mastered the art of using reactors to make plutonium.

The new reactor could be a central issue in the Trump-Kim talks, if the goal, as the United States insists, is complete denuclearisation.

Even if Kim agrees to a freeze on nuclear and missile testing, he would still be able to accumulate more bomb fuel for a larger arsenal as long as the negotiations dragged on.

This was a critical issue in the Iran negotiations, where President Barack Obama negotiated a freeze on new production of significant quantities of new nuclear fuel, though it expires in 13 years. It is unclear whether Trump could extract a similar halt in production from North Korea.

But if the talks fail, or simply drag on, the reactor could also be part of the justification for military action - at least if the past arguments of Trump's newly appointed national security adviser, John R. Bolton, prevail.

In March 2015, just before the Iran deal was struck, Bolton argued in a New York Times op-ed that neither negotiations nor sanctions would stop Iran from bolstering its nuclear and weapons programs. He has since made similar arguments about North Korea.

"The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required," Bolton wrote.

"Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed."

Before and after the announcement of Bolton's appointment last week, the National Security Council did not respond to several requests for comment on the evidence that North Korea's new reactor is being started up. Bolton assumes his new role on April 9.

An image of the North Korean reactor from February shows what look like emissions from a smokestack. That suggests that preliminary testing may have begun at the new reactor, according to a report by Jane's Intelligence Review and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. The plant is called the experimental light water reactor.

It has the potential to make 25-30 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small town. The plant could also potentially produce about 20 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear weapons.

This would be more than four times the amount made annually by the North's only other large reactor, which has long supplied the country with plutonium for its nuclear arsenal.

 
 
 

Imagery analysts at Stanford found that activity around the new reactor increased significantly in 2017, suggesting that the North has been rushing toward its full operation.

Throughout 2017, analysts observed what appeared to be major work to complete a river cooling system for the new reactor.

Analysts also found some evidence that could support North Korea's assertion that the new reactor would be used for power generation. Satellite images appeared to show that power lines and a transmission tower had been erected around the site.

"There are a number of objects that have been put in place that lead me and a number of experts to the conclusion that this might be used for production of electricity," said Allison Puccioni of the Stanford team. She cautioned against assuming that North Korea sees the reactor as a way to make more fuel for nuclear weapons.

But the potential is there, and the North long ago banned international inspectors who carefully monitor what happens to the plutonium in used reactor fuel.

North Korea first began operating a nuclear reactor in the 1980s at Yongbyon, according to declassified CIA documents and a report by Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico who has visited the Yongbyon complex multiple times.

In 1986, North Korea began operating the 5-megawatt reactor, which some analysts say has produced the nation's entire supply of plutonium.

A 60-foot cooling tower, which carries waste heat away from the old reactor by emitting steam, was one of the most visible parts of the nuclear fuel operations at Yongbyon.

After six-nation nuclear talks in 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down all facilities at the sprawling Yongbyon complex, and in 2008, the 60-foot cooling tower, one of the most visible reactor structures, was demolished. Video of the event was broadcast around the world.

"As a gesture of good faith," said Puccioni, "they destroyed the cooling tower, ostensibly to show the world that they are no longer going to use the 5-megawatt reactor." In truth, the destruction of the cooling tower was mostly a symbolic step that did little to undo the vast enterprise at Yongbyon.

In 2010, satellite imagery showed signs that the North was beginning construction of a new reactor.

By 2013, the exterior of the new reactor appeared to be completed, and activity around it was relatively stagnant after that, according to the Stanford group.

Hecker, with two other nuclear engineering experts, wrote in the Korea Observer in 2016 that North Korea was still developing the technology needed to start the reactor.

Over roughly the same period, the country began taking steps to get its old reactor running again, despite earlier promises to abandon the plant.

In 2013, satellite images revealed a new trench connecting the reactor to the Kuryong River. It would become part of a new cooling system. After that, analysts observed periodic discharges of hot water from the reactor into the river.

In a satellite image from Jan 17, 2018, steam is visible from the existing 5-megawatt reactor's turbine building, and hot water appears to be melting snow at a discharge pipe. The evidence suggests that the reactor could again be in active use.

"The 5-megawatt reactor has been in continuous operation more or less for the entirety of 2017," said Puccioni, who has been studying satellite imagery of Yongbyon for almost a decade.