Satellite imagery suggests recent flooding in North Korea may have damaged pump houses connected to the country’s main nuclear facility, a U.S.-based think-tank said on Thursday.
Analysts at 38 North, a website that monitors North Korea, said commercial satellite imagery from August 6-11 showed how vulnerable the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center’s nuclear reactor cooling systems are to extreme weather events.
The Korean Peninsula has been hammered by one of the longest rainy spells in recent history, with floods and landslides causing damage and deaths in both North and South Korea.
Located on the bank of the Kuryong River about 100 km (60 miles) north of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, Yongbyon is home to nuclear reactors, fuel reprocessing plants and uranium enrichment facilities that are thought to be used in the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The five-megawatt reactor - believed to be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium - does not appear to have been operating for some time, and an Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) has not yet come online, but such flooding in the future would likely force a shutdown, the 38 North report said.
“Damage to the pumps and piping within the pump houses presents the biggest vulnerability to the reactors,” the report said. “If the reactors were operating, for instance, the inability to cool them would require them to be shut down.”
While there was further flooding downstream, it did not appear to reach the Yongbyon facility’s Uranium Enrichment Plant and by August 11 the waters appear to have somewhat receded, 38 North said.
North Korea’s state media has not mentioned any damage to Yongbyon, but reported this week that senior leaders had been touring flood-stricken areas, delivering aid and providing guidance on how to prevent the high waters from damaging crops.
South Korea’s Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the 38 North report, but said it is always monitoring developments related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and maintaining close co-operation with the U.S. government.
At a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for relief from a range of international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
At the time Trump said he rejected that deal because Yongbyon is only one part of the North’s nuclear program, and was not enough of a concession to warrant loosening so many sanctions.