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North Korea uranium enrichment continued at Yongbyon with expansion, analyst says

North Korea began building a large enrichment hall at its Yongbyon nuclear facility after 2009, according to former IAEA official Olli Heinonen. File Photo by Siegfried C. Hecker/UPI
North Korea began building a "large enrichment hall" at its Yongbyon nuclear facility after 2009, according to former IAEA official Olli Heinonen. File Photo by Siegfried C. Hecker/UPI | License Photo

July 19 (UPI) -- A former official of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that it is likely North Korea had produced 540 kilograms, or 1,190 pounds, of highly enriched uranium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility by the end of 2020.

Olli Heinonen, former IAEA deputy director general, said in an analysis recently published to 38 North that the production of weapons-grade uranium has become the foundation of North Korea's "ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons."

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Heinonen said North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Plant at Yongbyon was first made known in 2010, then expanded in 2013 to 2014, "gradually increasing capacity as the installation of necessary infrastructure proceeded."

North Korea began building a "large enrichment hall" after IAEA inspectors were expelled in April 2009 from Yongbyon. Yongbyon's blue-roofed "Hall 1" was built that summer, the analyst said.

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Pyongyang continued to expand facilities after 2009. Satellite imagery from June 2013 shows that North Korea built "Hall 2," similar in size to Hall 1.

Members of a U.S. team from Stanford University led by Siegfried Hecker were told in 2010 that Hall 1 could contain 2,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, according to Heinonen.

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After the expansion, North Korea by the end of 2020 could have in theory produced up to 705 kilograms, or about 1,550 pounds, of highly enriched uranium. But the analyst said the "facility may not have been operating with its estimated full capacity," and actual production may have been closer to 540 kilograms by the end of last year.

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"Since the North's 5-megawatt reactor has not run since 2018 and the [Experimental Light Water Reactor] is still unfinished, the Uranium Enrichment Plant appears to now serve as the backbone of the country's fissile material production program," the analyst said.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said in June North Korea's nuclear facilities are active, including a facility at Kangson designed to produce Uranium-235.

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