North Korea has already performed several underground tests of nuclear weapons, so there is no doubt the rogue nation has developed nuclear technology. Most Western intelligence estimates suggest that North Korea only has a handful of functional nukes at this point, but could have as many as a dozen or more in just a few years.
Moreover, recent satellite images show that the impoverished nation is spending a big chunk of its very limited resources to its refurbish its largest production facility for uranium oxide. Of note, producing milled uranium oxide is the first step in enriching uranium for use use in nuclear weapons.
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More on upgrade of North Korea nuclear facility
The new images were released by 38 North, a well-known website operated by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The satellite images highlight that a uranium mine and mill near Pyongsan, North Korea have seen major construction activity over the last year.
Jeffrey Lewis, the author of the 38 North article and director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noted: “The most recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that the Uranium Concentration Plant is currently undergoing significant refurbishment…The renovation suggests that North Korea is preparing to expand the production of uranium from a nearby mine.”
It appears from the photos that many of the buildings at the facility have new roofs, and the main receiving area for the conveyer belt used that moves the ore from the mine to the processing building has been upgraded and notably expanded. A number of other support buildings appear have been razed and/or are being rebuilt. Lewis also points out that the spoil from the mill is being directly disposed of in a lake adjacent to the uranium processing facility.
Lewis also emphasizes that one of the biggest challenges in estimating the number of nuclear weapons North Korea has and the rate of production is uncertainty about how many centrifuge facilities for enriching uranium the country has. These facilities are often difficult to detect and keep track of, so carefully tracking the expansion of mining and milling at the Pyongsan facility should permit closer estimates of the size of North Korea’s enrichment infrastructure by analyzing demand for uranium.
Obviously, keeping a closer eye on North Korea’s uranium resources more generally, including known uranium mines and mills and other suspected sites, will also lead to more accurate estimates of the rogue nation’s nuclear bomb making capabilities.
Lewis summed up the overall significance of the ongoing upgrades to the Pyongsan uranium facility: “The significant investment in refurbishing the mill suggests that North Korea is expecting to process significant amounts of uranium, either from the Pyongsan mine or other uranium mines.”
North Korean plans for more uranium
In the interest of fairness, Lewis notes it is quite possible North Korea plans to enrich the additional uranium it is producing to make more nuclear weapons. However, it is also possible Pyongyang is simply looking to produce fuel for the Experimental Light Water Reactor it is building at its Yongbon nuclear research facility and other future light-water reactors.