Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center indicates that the spent fuel storage building at the abandoned, never-completed 50 MWe Reactor is being dismantled or repurposed. The building was designed to contain a spent fuel storage pond as well as three smaller ponds serving decontamination and other purposes. The dismantlement of the roof began between May 22 and June 6, while the remainder of the walls were dismantled by August 25.
The purpose of theactivity is unclear at this stage, as simple dismantlement of such a facility is unusual—this was not done at the Taechon 200 MWe reactor site, for instance. One possibility is that the building is being refurbished to accommodate spent fuel from Yongbyon’s other reactors or repurposed in the way the former Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant was reconstructed to accommodate uranium enrichment processes.
Figure 1. Dismantlement activity of the spent fuel storage building since May 22.
Activity at the 50 MWe Reactor
While there has been some limited activity at this site over the past 15 years, efforts have picked up this year. From May until the end of August 2021, the roof and walls of the spent fuel storage building were dismantled, revealing the spent fuel storage ponds. Most of the building materials appear to have been salvaged and stored in open piles around the reactor area, possibly for future use on-site here or elsewhere.
In imagery from August 25, multiple large holes have been excavated where the footings for pillars of the spent fuel storage building once stood along the perimeter of the original walls. By September 15, the holes appeared to be complete. Since the dismantlement efforts so far do not include the water treatment area, it is possible that this building is being redesigned to store spent fuel from Yongbyon’s other reactors, especially since the location is close to the reprocessing plant (Radiochemical Laboratory). While imagery may reveal further indications of the building’s purpose as construction progresses, the actual function will likely remain uncertain until on-site inspections can be carried out.