North Korea has moved a step closer to building a nuclear power plant that could be used to bolster the state’s ailing nuclear weapons programme by placing a large, concrete-reinforced dome on a light-water reactor.

Recent images taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite show that the dome has been placed atop the plutonium-producing reactor at the Yongbyon complex, 60 miles north of the capital Pyongyang.

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The images show the 21-metre dome has been put in place

According to image analyst Allison Puccioni of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the move is a “major step” in the North Korean mission to “build a modern, indigenous nuclear reactor with a 21-metre diameter dome now having been emplaced over the reactor building”.

“The emplacement of the dome is a significant development, although it may take several more years for the facility to be completed and brought into full operation," she added.

Puccioni said that the structure had been placed on the reactor between the end of June and the beginning of August.

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The Yongbyon power plant has been opened and closed several times since the 1980s

The Yongbyon site, which was built in the 1980s, produced the fissile material for the country’s nuclear weapon tests in 2006 and 2009.

The plant was closed in the mid-nineties as part of the “Agreed Framework” between the US and the DPRK, which froze the state’s indigenous nuclear power plant programme.

It was reopened in 2003 after the agreement broke down, but closed again in the wake of the Six Party Talks in 2007.

The most recent reactivation came in 2010, under the guise of providing energy for the civilian population.

However, defence analysts suggest that the reactor could easily be turned to the manufacture of weapons-grade plutonium.

The regime is also currently building a uranium-enrichment plant for the energy-starved country, however that too could be used to provide weapons-grade material.