Korea must convince US of reprocessing need
South Korea and the United States have shown little progress in their talks on the bilateral nuclear treaty although they have held five rounds of negotiations since 2010 to rewrite the accord that is set to expire in March 2014.
The American side is reportedly lukewarm to the Korean request for a revision of the accord. If the talks are protracted further, Korea may suffer serious problems in providing enriched uranium and disposing of spent nuclear fuel.
Under the nuclear pact signed in 1972 and revised in 1974, Korea is barred from reprocessing its own nuclear fuel rods. The U.S. put in these restrictions out of concern that Korea could obtain materials to produce nuclear weapons if it is allowed to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel, which would set a bad precedent in U.S. efforts to stem nuclear proliferation.
Seoul is now asking Washington to allow it to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, alleging that it is running out of storage space for spent fuel. Currently, about 700 tons of spent nuclear fuel are produced a year in the country’s 22 nuclear reactors.
But due to the lack of reprocessing technology, spent fuel is stored in temporary facilities at power plants. The Gori nuclear power plant is expected to reach its storage limit in 2016 and other plants will face a similar situation by 2024. Seoul’s concern about spent fuel is all the more serious because it would be all but impossible to find a site for permanent waste disposal.
Korea also spends more than 900 billion won every year to purchase more than 4,000 tons of yellow cake, the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment, from abroad because it is prohibited from enriching uranium.
Washington has reason to suspect Seoul’s possible development of nuclear weapons because of the latter’s track record. In the 1970s, when Army general-turned-President Park Chung-hee was in power, Korea pushed for a secret project to develop nuclear weapons. In the early 2000s, Korea also conducted small-scale uranium enrichment experiment.
Nevertheless, we feel uncomfortable with America’s rigid stance on this matter, given that Korea is one of the world’s top five countries in terms of its capacity to develop nuclear energy. Regretfully enough, however, of the five, Korea is the only country barred from reprocessing spent fuel.
More surprising is that Japan was granted reprocessing authority in 1988 through the revision of the U.S.-Japan nuclear treaty. India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), secured the right to reprocess spent fuel in 2007 through bilateral talks with the U.S.
As things stand, Korea needs to be flexible because the U.S. is reportedly more responsive to Korea’s reprocessing demands. This means that Korea might have to focus on obtaining concessions for reprocessing but boldly give up its demand for uranium enrichment.
The development of pyroprocessing technology, which enables the reuse of waste but doesn’t produce plutonium or uranium, could be used as a tool to persuade the U.S.