North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Unusual Activity in the Fuel Reception Area

A 38 North exclusive with analysis from Peter Makowsky, Frank V. Pabian and Jack Liu

Commercial satellite imagery of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center from the month of September reveals there are numerous white, cylindrical-like containers in the Fuel Reception Area of the Radiochemical Laboratory. The purpose of these objects is unclear.

While there are no indications of renewed reactor operations, some minor work in being done to extend the earthen embankment that spans the two pump houses, probably to help mitigate erosion from seasonal flooding. Minor construction projects are underway throughout the rest of the complex, including at the Main Research and Administration Headquarters Area and the engineering office building adjacent to the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR).

The Radiochemical Laboratory

Imagery indicates that numerous small, white cylindrical-shaped containers or “packages” are present in the Fuel Reception Area. A large grouping is concentrated in an area near the building itself and several are lined up along the service road to the facility. Commercial satellite imagery alone does not provide sufficient information to determine the purpose of these objects.

Figure 1. White cylindrical-shaped containers present in the Fuel Reception Area.

Figure 1. White cylindrical-shaped containers present in the Fuel Reception Area. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

5 MWe Reactor

Light vehicle activity was observed at the 5 MWe Reactor on September 16 and 29. On September 16, a large cargo truck and a possible light utility vehicle were present. On September 29, a small cargo truck and the possible light utility vehicle were present. The presence of vehicles is not unusual, but suggests the facilities are being maintained. In August, for instance, the number of vehicles in this area ranged from none to a high of four vehicles present.

Figure 2. Light vehicle activity observed at the 5 MWe Reactor.

Figure 2A. Light vehicle activity observed at the 5 MWe Reactor, September 16, 2019. Image Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 2B. Light vehicle activity observed at the 5 MWe Reactor, September 29, 2019. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

ELWR

No activity was observed at the Experimental Light Water Reactor. However, minor construction continues at the engineering office building located immediately west of ELWR. Unidentified objects have been observed on the concrete parking area of the building, including two large, tarp-covered objects observed on August 4, and approximately a half dozen uncovered, smaller ones neatly stacked in two lines in the front parking area. The latter were first observed on August 25 and have remained present through September 29. Minor construction activity appears to be continuing at the rear and south sides of the building. The three identified objects and probable mobile crane observed along the road on the east side of the ELWR on August 13 were not present on subsequent coverage.

Figure 3. Minor construction activity continues at office building near the ELWR.

Figure 3A. Minor construction activity continues at office building near the ELWR, September 16, 2019. Image Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 3B. Minor construction activity continues at office building near the ELWR, September 29, 2019. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Site Construction and Remodeling

Renovation is ongoing in the Main Research and Administrative Headquarters Area. In the northwest corner of the compound, a two-story building, present on August 13, was razed by August 25. On September 16, a new building was under construction on the same site. Its foundation appeared complete and walls were being erected. By September 29, the first-floor slab flooring was partially in place. While the final size and purpose of the new structure is yet to be determined, the pace of construction has been remarkable.

At the east side of that complex, along the river’s edge, dredging and earth-moving have been ongoing, but the nature of the work had been undetermined. Imagery from September 16, however, revealed that an earthwork dike is being constructed in the area between the northern-most pump house and extends north to the bridge. This will be an extension to the existing embankment, which spans the distance south between the two pump houses associated with the complex. When complete, it will likely serve as flood protection against seasonal, rising river waters. Imagery from September 29 showed that a boom crane had arrived and had been located directly above the dredge suggesting, that work was being done to the dredge at that time.

Figure 4. Renovation and construction activities observed at the Main Research and Administrative Headquarters Area.

Figure 4A. Overview of main research and administrative headquarters area. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 4B. Renovation and construction activities observed at the Main Research and Administrative Headquarters Area, September 29, 2019. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 5. Two-story building razed and construction of new structure underway.

Figure 5A. Two-story building razed and construction of new structure underway, August 13, 2019. Image Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 5B. Two-story building razed and construction of new structure underway, August 25, 2019. Image Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 5C. Two-story building razed and construction of new structure underway, September 16, 2019. Image Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected]
Figure 5D. Two-story building razed and construction of new structure underway, September 29, 2019. Satellite image © 2019 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 6. Ongoing dredging and earth-moving observed at river’s edge.

Other Site Facilities

No significant activity was noted at the Uranium Enrichment Plant, the thermal plant, or the Radioisotope Production Plant.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea