Satellite images suggest that North Korean authorities have restarted the reactor at the Yongbyon plutonium production site, leading the West to wonder if the country is actively pursuing development of a nuclear weapon.
CNN reported that images from Aug. 31 show steam flowing from two columns of the nuclear facility. The steam is rising from the area of the building that’s believed to contain steam turbines and electric generators. The significance of the steam is that it means the reactor is likely operational.
But whether North Korea is truly pursuing plutonium production or just putting on a show for the international community is an unknown.
“This is something [North Korea] very much need[s] to arm their arsenal, and that is really linked into what they see as marketing power on the international plane,” said Jasper Kim, the founder of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group, to CNN. “Without this type of nuclear capability, or at least the perception of the threat of having nuclear capabilities, North Korea really has few bargaining chips.”
The nation agreed to shut its Yongbyon facility in 1994 as part of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In April, the country announced it would restart operations at the site.
Experts with the Institute for Science and International Security say North Korea would need between two and three years to generate enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. But they also suggest that the West needs to hurry and reach an agreement with North Korea to stop the production now.
“There remains time to negotiate a shutdown of the reactor before North Korea can use any of this new plutonium in nuclear weapons,” said David Albright and Robert Avagyan, with ISIS, in the CNN report. “If a shutdown is achieved in the next six months, the reactor would have produced very little plutonium.”