Satellite images show suspicious activity in a North Korean lab that could separate plutonium for nuclear weapons, said a U.S. website that monitors sensitive sites in the closed country, on April 4.
Over the past five weeks exhaust plumes have been seen two or three times at the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory, North Korea’s nuclear facility, reported website 38 North.
The activity suggests that buildings there are being heated, but is unclear for what exactly.
“The plumes suggest that the operators of the reprocessing facility are heating their buildings, perhaps indicating that some significant activity is being undertaken, or will be in the near future. Whether that activity will be additional separation of plutonium for nuclear weapons remains unclear,” said the analysis by satellite imagery specialists William Mugford and Joseph Bermudez.
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The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, recently told Congress that North Koreans could be ready to begin recovering material for nuclear weapons “within a matter of weeks to months.”
Clapper made the statement after North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test in January and then a long-range rocket launch weeks after.
The website 38 North said the exhaust plumes in the area are unusual.
North Korea banned U.N. nuclear inspectors from Nyongbyon in 2009, so it is difficult to know what exactly is happening on the site.
The reactor has been the source of plutonium for the country’s small arsenal of weapons.
North Korea had announced in 2013 that it planned to renovate and restart nuclear facilities, including the reactor which was closed down in 2007.
The website reported continued work at the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) transformer yard at the site. By the end of 2015, a second transformer was installed in the area, and a new road was also built on the site next to the transformer yard.
The satellite images also show continued activity with vehicles of various sizes being moved around the back of the 5MWe reactor hall. Website 38 North said a reason for the activity could be due to continued maintenance to the site, and the activity may indicate that the reactor is being worked on to bring it back to service.
There are at least three or four buildings in the early stages of construction, according to 38 North.
North Korea has developed two ways to create fissile material for weapons, enrichment of uranium and separation of plutonium. U.S. experts estimate that North Koreans may already have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by the next four years.
Meanwhile, President Obama recently met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea to discuss ways of countering a nuclear attack. Obama called on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons..
China also agreed to fully carry out recent economic restrictions imposed by the U.N. Security Council against North Korea.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.