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High-resolution satellite imagery suggests N. Korea is producing fissile materials

An inspection of high-resolution satellite imagery and thermal infrared satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has recently operated key facilities in the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Pyongan Province, which could mean it is producing fissile materials.

In a review of imagery taken by Maxar satellites, the discharge of coolant warmed during the operation of a 5 MWe reactor and a light water reactor at the Yongbyon complex was detected for the 11th time this year. In addition, an analysis of thermal infrared satellite imagery found that the radiochemical laboratory and the uranium enrichment facility (also known as reprocessing facilities) are being operated and that high amounts of energy are being released as a result of those operations.

This evidence suggests that North Korea is producing the fissile materials of plutonium and highly enriched uranium while operating the facilities at Yongbyon.

Interpretation of high-resolution images from Maxar

Coolant and white foam discharged into the Kuryong River during operations of the 5 MWe regular reactor and the light water reactor at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex are clearly visible at drainage pipes connected to two pumphouses. Imagery=GeoEye-1 (@ 2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

Viewing the area around the 5 MWe reactor and the light water reactor on Maxar’s GeoEye-1 satellite imagery (with a resolution of 40 centimeters) taken on May 14 clearly shows that white foam and coolant warmed during the operation of the reactors is being discharged into the Kuryong River at two pumphouses. In keeping with a previous Daily NK report, this is the 11th time a coolant discharge has been detected this year.

Based on an analysis of the Maxar satellite images, coolant was first discharged during trial operations of the experimental light water reactor in the second half of 2023, and discharge resumed in January 2024. Coolant discharge was not detected for about a month, from mid-March to the latter half of April, when the two reactors were not in operation. But the coolant discharge has been continuously detected since the end of April.

Thermal infrared satellite images were used to examine indications of facility operation through temperature distribution at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex. The thermal infrared images in question were taken by Landsat-8, an earth observation satellite that is operated by NASA. These images, which have a resolution of 100 meters, detect heat energy emitted from the service and numerically record the temperatures in question.

Analysis of thermal infrared satellite imagery

This temperature distribution map at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex is based on an analysis of thermal infrared satellite data. This map shows a high amount of thermal energy being emitted from the radiochemical laboratory and the uranium enrichment facility emitted in apparent evidence of the production of fissile materials. Imagery=GeoEye-1 (background) and Landsat-8 thermal infrared data (semi-transparent layer) (@ 2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

Thermal infrared images express the level of surface heat (or temperature) in brightness. For a meaningful analysis, those levels need to be converted to surface temperature in Celsius through a formula-driven step-by-step process. ERDAS IMAGINE, an image processing software package, was used to analyze the thermal infrared images, while ArcGIS was used as the geographic information system (GIS) in the analysis.

The image above converted the thermal infrared images taken by Landsat-8 according to the technical formulas and procedures presented in a 2013 research paper by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The surface temperature distribution at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex was expressed in colors assigned at 1-2 degree intervals. The background was illustrated by a high-resolution GeoEye-1 image (taken on May 14) in order to aid understanding of the facilities on the surface, superimposed with a semi-transparent layer of temperature distribution expressed in color from the thermal infrared data.

According to the analysis of the thermal infrared images, the temperature distribution at the Yongbyon area ranged from a low of 13 degrees to a high of 28 degrees, for an average of 19 degrees, around 11 AM on May 16.

There may be errors in the surface temperature arrived at through thermal infrared analysis because it was calculated indirectly based on mathematical formulas. The 2013 USGS research paper described a margin of error of ±3 degrees Celsius. More precise temperatures would have to be directly measured with thermometers at the surface.

According to the analysis, the radiochemical laboratory (a nuclear reprocessing facility) had a temperature of 27–28 degrees, which was much higher than the surrounding temperature in Yongbyon (an average of 19 degrees). The uranium enrichment facility also appeared to be emitting high thermal energy at a temperature of 25–26 degrees. It is presumed that spent fuel rods are being reprocessed into plutonium, which is a fissile material, in the radiochemical laboratory, and that highly enriched uranium is being produced by rotating uranium at high speeds in hundreds or thousands of centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility.

Along with North Korea’s ongoing missile launches, there are indications of vertical engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang Village. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also emphasized that North Korea “needs to continue accelerating major activities and production in order to strengthen our nuclear arsenal” during a recent visit to a defense company.

It is during those developments that activities related to the production of key fissile materials have been detected in high-resolution and thermal infrared satellite images of Yongbyon. Security concerns on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia are unlikely to be laid to rest anytime soon.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

May 23, 2024 at 06:30AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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