North Korea Nuclear Tunnel Collapses, 200 May Be Dead Amid Radioactive Leak Fears

A tunnel at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site has collapsed, killing at least 200 people. The disaster has raised fears of a “Chornobyl-like” radioactive leak that could spread beyond the country’s borders.

According to Japanese source Asahi TV, a North Korean official said the tunnel collapsed on October 10th, less than a month after the regime’s latest nuclear test. The tunnel, situated under Mount Mantap,  had been damaged by the blast. Approximately a hundred people were caught in the initial collapse, and a hundred more people were trapped by a second collapse while trying to rescue them.

Experts have been warning that the nuclear test site was on the verge of collapse since a detonation test on September 3rd. The bomb that was tested, North Korea’s most powerful to date, was said to be ten times more powerful than the bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to North Korean authorities, the bomb was capable of being loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, meaning that it could hypothetically target faraway countries.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the test triggered a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, and a 4.1 magnitude event less than ten minutes later that suggested a structural collapse. In the month since, there have been frequent tremors in the area, and satellite images show that Mount Mantap has been experiencing landslides. North Korean watchdog agency 38 North had suggested that Mantap might be suffering from “tired mountain syndrome,” which occurs when widespread fractures put a mountain in danger of collapse.

Underground nuclear testing is meant to prevent radioactive material from being released to the surface, and scientists worry the collapse could spur the spread of nuclear fallout throughout the surrounding area. If a sufficiently-large hole opened in the mountain, it might release trapped radioactive material.  Researcher Wang Naiyan, the chair of the China Nuclear Society, called the phenomenon “taking the roof off.”

The released nuclear material might spread beyond the nation’s borders, adding to the political tensions in the area. South Korea has already reported finding traces of radioactive xenon after its neighbour’s recent tests. And 38 North reports that if nuclear debris reached China, it would be seen as an attack on the nation.

Geologists and nuclear scientists have implored North Korea to stop testing at the site permanently, as the mountain’s instability risks live both inside and outside the region. Wang bluntly claimed, “The North Korean government should stop the tests as they pose a huge threat not only to North Korea but to other countries.” It is still uncertain whether or not Pyongyang will listen to these warnings.

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