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North Korean ELWR makes progress towards operations

04 January 2018 IHS Markit Guest Blogger

North Korea has made progress in late 2017 on its experimental light water reactor at Yongbyon. Allison Puccioni and Elliot Serbin demonstrate how multiple intelligence sources can produce a better understanding of the reactor's operations.

This is an extract from an article from Jane's Intelligence Review.

Key points

  • New multi-source research by the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University has shed light on developments in 2017 at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear research facility.
  • There has been notable activity surrounding the experimental light water reactor (ELWR) at Yongbyon, including its connection to the local power grid and apparent pre-operations testing.
  • Although it is optimised for civilian power generation, the ELWR could also be diverted to tritium or plutonium production, enabling an increase in Pyongyang's potential nuclear weapons stockholdings.

North Korea's successful test of a likely boosted fission or hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb on 3 September 2017 and its multiple launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and shorter-range missiles in 2017 have challenged open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysts' understanding of Pyongyang's developing nuclear capabilities.

Gaps in intelligence are particularly pertinent to the country's Nuclear Scientific Research Center at Yongbyon, 75 km north of Pyongyang. This facility accounts for all of North Korea's known nuclear weapons material, but is rarely mentioned in North Korean propaganda and indeed may never have hosted an official visit by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un or his father, Kim Jong-il.

Because of this dearth of open-source information, the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University, California, has conducted a multidimensional open-source project using non-conventional sources - reported for the first time by Jane's - to garner a better understanding of North Korea's nuclear energy and weapons development under way at Yongbyon.

© CNES 2017, Distribution Airbus Defence and Space / © 2018 IHS Markit

This is an extract from an article that appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review. Learn more.

Allison Puccioni is an affiliate of CISAC at Stanford University, California, founder of the imagery consultancy Armillary Services LLC, and freelance satellite imagery analyst for Jane's by IHS Markit.

Elliot Serbin is a research assistant for Professor Siegfried Hecker at CISAC.

Posted 5 January 2018


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