North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Plant: What to Make of New Construction

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicated new construction is underway at North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP) at the country’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Analysis by Jeffrey Lewis, Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler on Arms Control Wonk was reported by CNN, concluding that the “expansion of the enrichment plant probably indicates that North Korea plans to increase production of its weapons-grade uranium at the Yongbyon site by as much as 25 percent,” suggesting that the new building under construction may house 1,000 centrifuges.

38 North also reported on this new construction, but with less certainty about the goal of this activity. While its proximity to the UEP implies a strong relationship, the building is in the very early stages of construction, lacking the signatures sufficient to credibly determine its purpose.

Building an addition to the centrifuge halls is one possibility, as North Korea has set goals for its nuclear weapons program that will require more of both plutonium and high-enriched uranium. However, there are a number of other potential uses for a facility this size as well. One such possibility would be a small pilot or demonstration plant to test more advanced centrifuges. This would be similar to the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz, Iran, for instance, or comparable examples in other countries with civilian or military uranium enrichment programs. Another option would be a centrifuge assembly workshop, to facilitate the replacement of centrifuges as needed.

Therefore, while this new construction at the UEP fits within the context of North Korea’s goals to modernize and further advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the exact purpose and impact of this new building remain unclear.

Construction activity adjacent to UEP, September 1 to September 18, 2021.

Cooling units removed and initial construction visible behind Cascade Hall 2, September 1, 2021. Image © 2021 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].
Cooling units removed and construction visible behind Cascade Hall 2, September 9, 2021. Image Pleiades © CNES 2021, Distribution Airbus DS. For media options, please contact [email protected].
Construction progress at UEP, September 18, 2021. Image © 2021 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].
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