Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center

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Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center
Yongbyon 5MWe Magnox reactor.jpg
The 5 MWe experimental reactor
Korean name
Chosŏn'gŭl 녕변핵시설
Hancha 寧邊核設施
Revised Romanization Nyeongbyeon haeksiseol
McCune–Reischauer Nyŏngbyŏn haeksisŏl

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center[1] is North Korea's major nuclear facility, operating its first nuclear reactors. It is located in the county of Nyŏngbyŏn in North Pyong'an Province, about 90 km north of Pyongyang. The center produced the fissile material for North Korea's nuclear weapon tests in 2006 and 2009, and since 2009 is developing indigenous light water reactor nuclear power station technology.


The major installations include all aspects of a Magnox nuclear reactor fuel cycle, based on the use of natural uranium fuel:

Magnox spent fuel is not designed for long-term storage as both the casing and uranium metal core react with water; it is designed to be reprocessed within a few years of removal from a reactor.[2] As a carbon dioxide cooled, graphite moderated Magnox reactor does not require difficult-to-produce enriched uranium fuel or heavy water moderator it is an attractive choice for a wholly indigenous nuclear reactor development.

The Magnox facilities were disabled in 2007 in accord with the six-party talks agreement, but following the breakdown of that agreement were partially re-enabled in 2009 to reprocess existing stocks of spent fuel. On 15 September 2015, North Korea announced that the reactor had resumed operation.[3]

The center also has an IRT-2000 pool-type research reactor, supplied by the Soviet Union in 1963, operational since 1965.[4] The reactor fuel is IRT-2M type assemblies of 36% and 80% highly enriched uranium.[5][6] As the center has not received fresh fuel since Soviet times, this reactor is now only run occasionally to produce iodine-131 for thyroid cancer radiation therapy.[7]

In 2009 the building started of a small indigenous experimental light water reactor and the uranium enrichment technology to provide its nuclear fuel, with a target operation date for the reactor of 2012.[8]


The 5 MWe reactor, showing the fuel channels access ports

Construction of the 5 MWe experimental reactor began in 1980, and the reactor first went critical in 1986.[9] This reactor was an initial small technology proving reactor for a following development program of larger Magnox reactors. The spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility appeared to still be under construction in 1992.[9] The 5 MWe experimental reactor operated intermittently until 1994 when it was shut down in accordance with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. Following the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in 2002, operation restarted in February 2003, creating plutonium within its fuel load at a rate of about 6 kg per year.[10] The reactor fuel was replaced between April and June 2005. The spent nuclear fuel has been reprocessed with an estimated yield of about 24 to 42 kg of plutonium metal,[10] some of which was used for the nuclear weapons involved in the 2006 and 2009 North Korean nuclear tests.[11]

Yongbyon is also the site of a 50 MWe Magnox prototype power reactor, but construction was halted in 1994 about a year from completion in accord with the Agreed Framework, and by 2004 the structures and pipework had deteriorated badly.[12] This construction was being dismantled in 2010.[8]

Another 200 MWe Magnox full-scale power reactor was being constructed at Taechon, 20 km north-west of Yongbyon, (39°55′41″N 125°34′08″E / 39.928°N 125.569°E / 39.928; 125.569) until construction was also halted in 1994 in accord with the Agreed Framework. By 2005 reconstruction of this reactor was uneconomic.

The reactor designs were based on declassified information about the British Magnox design at Calder Hall and elsewhere, and the spent fuel reprocessing plant on the multi-national European Company for the Chemical Processing of Irradiated Fuels (EUROCHEMIC) plant at Mol-Dessel in Belgium.[10]

2007 shutdown[edit]

Empty machine shop in the disabled fuel fabrication facility

On Tuesday 13 February 2007, an agreement was reached at the Six party talks that North Korea will shut down and seal the Magnox nuclear reactor and associated facilities and invite back International Atomic Energy Agency personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications.[13] In return for this North Korea will receive emergency energy assistance from the other 5 parties in the form of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors arrived at the site on 28 June to discuss verification and monitoring arrangements for the shutdown.[14] This had been delayed from April due to a dispute with the United States over Banco Delta Asia.[15] On 3 June an anonymous South Korean government official indicated that the shutdown may start following the first oil shipment later in the month.[16] On 14 July, Sean McCormack stated that North Korea had told the US that the reactor had been shut down. He added that the US welcomed the news, and was awaiting verification from the IAEA team.[17] The next day, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced the UN's confirmation that the reactor had been shut down.[18] On 18 July 2007, the IAEA confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down.[19]

In his Introductory Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on 2008-03-03, the Director General stated that he could not provide an update on the disabling of the facilities, as it was not undertaken by the IAEA. All fuel rods from the 5 MWe Experimental Nuclear Power Plant and nuclear material generated by the disabling of the Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Plant were under IAEA containment and surveillance.[20]

2008 cooling tower demolition[edit]

On Friday 27 June 2008, North Korea destroyed the most visible symbol of its nuclear weapons program – the cooling tower at its main atomic reactor in the complex. The implosion was witnessed by a number of international journalists and diplomats.[21]

The demolition of the 60-foot (18 m)-tall cooling tower, which carried off waste heat to the atmosphere, is a response to U.S. concessions after the North delivered a declaration of its nuclear programs to be dismantled. The United States paid the US$2.5 million demolition fee.[citation needed]

Possible reactivation[edit]

During 2008 tensions resurfaced between North Korea and the U.S. due to disagreements over the six-party talks disarmament process. On 8 October 2008, IAEA inspectors were forbidden by the North Korean government to conduct further inspections of the site. However two days later the U.S. removed North Korea from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Yongbyon deactivation process resumed.[22]

2009 resumption of reprocessing[edit]

According to the state-run North Korean news agency KCNA website, the DPRK resumed the reprocessing of spent fuel to recover plutonium on 25 April 2009 in response to the UN's condemnation of its recent rocket launch. This material supplemented that used for nuclear weapons testing.[23]

Light water reactor development[edit]

In 2009 North Korea announced its intention to build an indigenous experimental light water reactor (LWR) and the uranium enrichment technology to provide its nuclear fuel.[24] In 2010 a 2,000 gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant to produce low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel began operating, and construction started on the experimental 25 to 30 MWe LWR, with a target operation date for the reactor of 2012.[8] In November 2011, satellite imagery indicated that the LWR construction was progressing rapidly, with the concrete structures largely completed. The LWR is being built on the site of the demolished cooling tower of the experimental Magnox reactor.[25][26] Following the building of this experimental LWR, North Korea intends to build larger LWRs for electricity generation.[8] Initial estimates were that the reactor would be put into operation in 2013,[27] but the reactor was not externally complete until 2016.[28]

Suspension of uranium enrichment[edit]

In February 2012, North Korea announced that it would suspend uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, and not conduct any further tests of nuclear weapons while productive negotiations involving the United States continue. Additionally, North Korea would allow IAEA inspectors to monitor operations at Yongbyon. The U.S. reaffirmed that it does not have hostile intent toward the DPRK, and is prepared to improve bilateral relationships.[29][30] Nuclear enrichment was presumably resumed following the collapse of the Leap Day Deal.

2013 planned restart of operation[edit]

In March 2013, North Korea announced that they would be restarting operation of the 5 MWe experimental reactor.[31] In order to do so, the disabled secondary cooling system will have to be restored.[32] The announcement arrived days after Pyongyang declared a "state of war" with South Korea.

In June 2013, the US-Korea-Institute at the Johns Hopkins University published satellite pictures showing that the cooling tower was repaired.[33]

Satellite pictures made 31 August 2013 show white steam rising from a building (near the reactor building) containing steam turbines and electric generators.[34]

On 15 September 2015, North Korea announced that the Yongbyon nuclear site is in full operation, including the 5 MWe experimental reactor.[3] However, satellite imagery in April 2016 suggested it was not operating at a high power level.[35]


The Yongbyon facility was described in 2013[36] as operating the following ten sub-branches:

  1. Isotope Utilization Institute
  2. Neutron Physics Institute
  3. Nuclear Electromagnetics Institute
  4. Nuclear Physics Institute
  5. Nuclear Material Institute
  6. Nuclear Energy Research Institute
  7. Uranium Resources Development Institute
  8. Radiochemical Laboratory
  9. Reactor Design Institute
  10. Radiation Protection Institute

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Yongbyon" is spelled and pronounced 녕변 (Nyŏngbyŏn) in North Korea and 영변 (Yŏngbyŏn) in South Korea.
  2. ^ Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (November 2000). RWMAC's Advice to Ministers on the Radioactive Waste Implications of Reprocessing, Annex 4: Dry storage and disposal of Magnox spent fuel (Report). Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Archived from the original on 27 July 2008. 
  3. ^ a b "North Korea Yongbyon nuclear site 'in operation'". BBC. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 15 September 2015. 
  4. ^ "Research Reactor Details – IRT-DPRK". International Atomic Energy Agency. 30 July 1996. Retrieved 14 February 2007. 
  5. ^ Siegfried S. Hecker (14 March 2008). Report of Visit to North Korea to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Report). Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  6. ^ "DPRK – Nuclear Weapons Program". GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  7. ^ David Albright (19 March 2007). Phased International Cooperation with North Korea’s Civil Nuclear Programs (PDF) (Report). Institute for Science and International Security. Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  8. ^ a b c d Siegfried S. Hecker (20 November 2010). A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex (Report). Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Sheryl WuDunn (17 May 1992). "North Korean site has A-bomb hints". New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c Siegfried S. Hecker; Sean C. Lee; Chaim Braun (Summer 2010). "North Korea's Choice: Bombs Over Electricity". The Bridge. National Academy of Engineering. 40 (2): 5–12. Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  11. ^ North Korean Fuel Identified as Plutonium, Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, New York Times, 17 October 2006
  12. ^ Siegfried S. Hecker (12 May 2009). "The risks of North Korea's nuclear restart". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved 5 November 2009. 
  13. ^ "Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)" (PDF). IAEA. 17 August 2007. GOV/2007/45-GC(51)/19. Retrieved 9 August 2009. 
  14. ^ U.N. nuke inspectors go to N. Korea reactor, CNN, published 2007-06-27, accessed 3 July 2007
  15. ^ James Reynolds (17 March 2007). "N Korea warning on nuclear deal". BBC News. Retrieved 17 March 2007. 
  16. ^ Heejin Koo (3 July 2007). "North Korea Reactor Closure May Begin in Mid-July". Bloomberg. Retrieved 3 July 2007. 
  17. ^ N Korea "closes nuclear reactor" BBC News retrieved 14 July 2007
  18. ^ "UN confirms N Korea nuclear halt", BBC News, 16 July 2007
  19. ^ "N Korea closes more nuclear sites", BBC News, 18 July 2007
  20. ^ "Verification of Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Implementation of Safeguards in the DPRK", IAEA: Statements of the Director General, Vienna, 2008-03-03. Retrieved on 26 April 2008
  21. ^ "Blast gets North Korea off US blacklist". The Australian. 28 June 2008. Retrieved 10 July 2008. [dead link]
  22. ^ Demetri Sevastopulo (10 October 2008). "Bush removes North Korea from terror list". Financial Times. Retrieved 10 October 2008. 
  23. ^ "North Korea says it has started reprocessing spent fuel rods". Nexis: BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific – Political; Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. 25 April 2009. 
  24. ^ "DPRK Foreign Ministry Declares Strong Counter- Measures against UNSC's "Resolution 1874"". Korean Central News Agency. 13 June 2010. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 
  25. ^ "North Korea Makes Significant Progress in Building New Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR)". 38 North, School of Advanced International Studies. Johns Hopkins University. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 18 November 2011. 
  26. ^ Niko Milonopoulos; Siegfried S. Hecker & Robert Carlin (6 January 2012). "North Korea from 30,000 feet". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved 19 January 2012. 
  27. ^ "North Korea makes "significant" nuclear reactor progress: IAEA". Reuters. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  28. ^ "North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: Slow Progress at the Experimental Light Water Reactor". 38 North. U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. 14 January 2016. Retrieved 4 April 2016. 
  29. ^ "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Result of DPRK-U.S. Talks". Korean Central News Agency. 29 February 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  30. ^ "U.S.-DPRK Bilateral Discussions". U.S. Department of State. 29 February 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  31. ^ "North Korea 'to restart Yongbyon nuclear reactor'". BBC. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 11 April 2013. 
  32. ^ Nick Hansen & Jeffrey Lewis (3 April 2013). "Satellite Images Show New Construction at North Korea's Plutonium Production Reactor; Rapid Restart?". 38 North, School of Advanced International Studies. Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved 11 April 2013. 
  33. ^ "Update on Yongbyon: Restart of Plutonium Production Reactor Nears Completion; Work Continues on the Experimental Light Water Reactor". 38 North, School of Advanced International Studies. Johns Hopkins University. 3 June 2013. Retrieved 8 Jan 2014. 
  34. ^ "North Korea Restarting Its 5MW Reactor". 38 North, School of Advanced International Studies. Johns Hopkins University. 11 Sep 2013. Retrieved 8 Jan 2014. 
  35. ^ Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. (15 April 2016). "More Evidence of Possible Reprocessing Campaign at Yongbyon; Progress at Experimental Light Water Reactor". 38 North. U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Retrieved 17 April 2016. 
  36. ^ "North Korea Nuclear R&D Structure". CRS. 13 February 2013. Archived from the original on 11 April 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 39°48′00″N 125°45′14″E / 39.800°N 125.754°E / 39.800; 125.754