North Korea’s nuclear programme is leaking toxic waste into a river – putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk, disturbing newly-released photos suggest.
US-based researcher Jacob Bogle, who has created a comprehensive map of the country from satellite images, made the alarming discovery while looking at pictures of Pyongsan uranium mine dating back to 2003.
Mr Bogle noticed that a waste pipe built to carry toxic water from the facility – which processes coal into uranium – to a nearby reservoir appears to be leaking into a river.
The Pyongsan uranium mine (pictured right) and accompanying uranium processing plant (pictured centre) turn ore into low-enriched uranium, which can then be turned into fuel. The process creates highly toxic waste water which is pumped to a reservoir (left), but satellite images show a pipe carrying the water is leaking into a river
Researcher Jacob Bogle noticed a large patch of what appears to be toxic waste coming out of the pipe and into a tributary which feeds the Ryesong River (pictured in 2006)
That tributary runs into the Ryesong River, which in turn empties into the Yellow Sea – an area between mainland China and the Korean Peninsula around which some 600 million people live.
Mr Bogle said: ‘I was able to review high-resolution historical satellite imagery for multiple years going back to 2003.
‘Each of the images shows an ever-growing pile of leaked material on either end of the pipe that takes waste material from the plant to an unlined reservoir.
‘Some of the images also show fluids being actively spilled directly into the river.
‘The plant is one of two declared uranium milling facilities in the country. It takes low-quality coal and processes it to create yellowcake, which contains around 80 per cent uranium.
‘The extraction and milling requires multiple chemical processes and leaves behind a very toxic mix of waste materials.
‘That toxic waste is then sent to the nearby reservoir, leaking and travelling into the Ryesong River in the process.’
The plant lies roughly 60 miles south of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Mr Bogle estimates that, within just nine miles of the Ryesong, there could be as many as 400,000 people consuming the river water or the crops fed by it.
The waste water will contain radioactive radium which can cause cancer, Mr Bogle says, along with various heavy metals which cause brain defects (the spill pictured in 2011)
Mr Bogle says the images show the spill has been happening since at least 2003 (pictured in 2017), putting about 400,000 people in the nearby area at risk
The Ryesong River ultimately empties into the Yellow Sea, which sits about 50 miles to the south, and has 600million people living in its catchment area (pictured, the leak in 2018)
The Ryesong ultimately empties into the Han River estuary, which in turn empties into the Yellow Sea, around 50 miles away.
Mr Bogle said: ‘The waste material will contain everything that is left over from the coal and any contaminated water.
‘Uranium milling produces radium, which is radioactive, and that will be sent through the leaking pipe along with the other contaminants like lead, arsenic, vanadium, and other heavy metals.
‘The radium will decay into the gas radon, which will enter the atmosphere each time the plant runs, while the other materials will leak into any groundwater sources and of course be carried downriver.’
He continued: ‘Defector testimony from other nuclear-related sites like Yongbyon and the nuclear-test mountain site Punggye-ri report major health effects, such as cancer, respiratory problems, and birth defects.
‘There is no reason to suspect the people near Pyongsan are immune to the effects of radon and heavy metals.
‘Radon will be carried throughout the area and can cause lung cancer. Lead and arsenic poisoning can cause neurological problems, especially among children.
‘At dangerous levels, the other heavy metals can cause a wide range of health problems.
While the effects of heavy metal poisoning are typically temporary, because people living near the plant have been exposed for a minimum of 16 years, Mr Bogle believes they are likely suffering permanent health effects
Mr Bogle said the spill appears whenever the plant is in use, and it appears to be in frequent use – judging by how quickly a pile of sludge accumulated inside the actual waste reservoir
‘Some of these issues would normally be temporary, but since the river provides drinking water and is used in agriculture, the people have been routinely exposed.’
The plant was constructed in the 1980s – and though imagery of the site is only available from 2003 onwards, Jacob says that even in those early photos the leak is visible.
‘It has been ongoing for at least 16 years,’ he said.
To get an idea of just how much could have leaked in that time, Mr Bogle has also analysed the buildup of waste in the nearby reservoir.
He estimates that the sludge pile there grew by 18,000 square metres in just three years, from 2016 to 2019.
‘The leak only occurs whenever the plant is in production,’ he said. ‘But given the enormous growth of the sludge pile within the reservoir, it wouldn’t be an aggressive estimate to suggest that at least hundreds of gallons of contaminated material are spilled into the river each day the plant runs.’
Because of the closed-off nature of North Korea, the leak can’t be verified on the ground but Mr Bogle, whose map of the country is freely downloadable at accessdprk.com, believes the available evidence is clear.
‘North Korea is not properly storing the material and the leakage is visible for all to see,’ he said.
‘When combined with the known health problems associated with those materials and the defector testimony from across the country, it becomes undeniable that a very serious environmental and health crisis is brewing in this part of North Korea.’