Missile-testing site in North Korean mountain could collapse

A new report claims the mountain under which experts believe North Korea conducted its five most recent nuclear bomb tests, including the latest and most-powerful on Sunday, could be at risk of collapsing, according to Chinese scientists studying the situation.

By measuring and analyzing the shock waves caused by the blasts, which were picked up by quake stations in China and neighboring countries, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, were confident that they were all carried out from under the same mountain at the Punggye-ri test site, said the team in a statement posted on its website on Monday.

Geophysicist Wen Lianxing said that, based on data collected by more than 100 earthquake monitoring centers in China, the margin of error was no more than 100 meters.

Wang Naiyan, the former chairman of the China Nuclear Society and senior researcher on China’s nuclear weapons program, said that if Wen’s findings were reliable, there is a risk of a major environmental disaster if another test causes the mountain to cave in on itself. Should the mountain collapse, a hole would be left from which radiation would spew and drift across the region, including in China.

“We call it ‘taking the roof off.’ If the mountain collapses and the hole is exposed, it will let out many bad things,” said the scientists.

Sunday’s blast was followed by an earthquake eight minutes later, which China’s seismic authorities interpreted as a cave-in, triggered by the explosion.

Not every mountain is suitable for nuclear bomb testing, said Wang, noting that such a mountain should have a high peak and relatively flat slopes. With North Korea’s limited land space, there haven’t been many mountains from which to choose.

How long the mountain would continue to stand would also depend on where the North Koreans placed the bombs, Wang said.

“If the bombs were planted at the bottom of vertically drilled tunnels, the explosion would do less damage,” he said.

Vertical tunnels are more difficult and expensive to build, and it was surely not easy to lay cables and sensors to collect data from the explosion, he said. Boring a horizontal tunnel into the heart of the mountain would be easier, but the risk of blowing the top off it is much higher.

The increasing size of North Korea’s nuclear bombs was also making “topping” more likely, Wang noted. “A 100-kiloton bomb is a relatively large bomb. The North Korean government should stop the tests, as they pose a huge threat not only to North Korea but to other countries, especially China,” he said.

Wang did say, however, that the calculations made by the scientists could be wrong because earthquake waves travel at different speeds through different rocks; making precise predictions based on seismic data is not always possible.

In the meantime, Chinese authorities, including the National Nuclear Safety Administration, will keep a watchful eye on every nuclear test conducted by North Korea, Wang said.

Radiation readings taken by the government on Monday showed nothing out of the ordinary.

Wen’s team estimated that the energy released in the latest test was about 108.3 kilotons of TNT or 7.8 times the amount released by the atomic bomb dropped by the US on the Japanese city Hiroshima in 1945. It also dwarfed all previous bombs tested by the North Korean military.

A team of scientists in Norway estimated the amount of energy released by the blast at Punggye-ri on Sunday at 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

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