With 20 nuclear reactors generating 141 terawatt hours of electricity in 2009, South Korea is already the world’s fifth-largest producer of nuclear energy. The country relies on domestic nuclear power for nearly 40 percent of its growing electricity requirements, and the government’s 2008 National Energy Basic Plan anticipates building 18 additional reactors to boost this share to 59 percent by 2030.
Nuclear power helps South Koreans limit their dependence on imported oil and natural gas as well as minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that due to public opposition to constructing a massive high-level nuclear waste repository in the densely-populated country, the country’s nuclear industry is running out of secure storage space for its spent nuclear fuel and other intensely radioactive by-products.
As a consequence, in its 2008 plan, the Korea Atomic Energy Commission indicated its intention over the next two decades to ‘reprocess’ this spent fuel (separating the useful uranium and plutonium from the reactor waste products) to reduce the need for storage, and also proposed developing a network of next-generation fast-breeder reactors to burn the reprocessed plutonium fuel to generate even more electricity.
South Korean authorities have also advocated using their new reprocessing technologies, breeder reactors, and possibly new uranium enrichment capabilities to expand the country’s already growing presence in foreign nuclear markets. Indeed, in January 2010, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy set a goal of exporting 80 nuclear power reactors worth $400 billion by 2030, which would establish the country as the world’s third-largest supplier of nuclear reactors, with a 20 percent share of the global market.
But although such grand plans involve a myriad of financial and technical challenges, the biggest obstacle to realizing these goals may come from another source entirely—the United States.
A 1974 civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, which expires in 2014, prohibits South Korea from engaging in plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment without US approval. Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act requires the United States to negotiate a framework cooperation agreement with a foreign government before any exchange of US-origin nuclear materials or technologies can occur. Since many nuclear reactors, including a majority of those in South Korea, use US-origin uranium or fuel that has been enriched in the United States (or US-based technologies) these restrictions apply to many foreign nuclear programmes. The 1978 Nuclear Non-proliferation Act also mandates that these agreements contain certain non-proliferation provisions, including several restrictions not in the earlier South Korea-US nuclear cooperation agreement.
South Korean officials consider these restrictions excessive and are seeking to relax them in the current negotiations over renewing the agreement. Yet neither the Obama administration nor the US Congress, which must approve any bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, is eager for more countries to possess sensitive nuclear technologies.