South Korea’s Nuclear Blues
Image Credit: flickr/turnerw82

South Korea’s Nuclear Blues


The Republic of Korea (ROK) has a sophisticated nuclear energy industry which consists of 23 reactors that supply a third of the country’s electricity. ROK’s total capacity in nuclear power was the world’s fifth largest in 2012, following Russia, Japan, France, and the United States. Although South Korea’s burgeoning nuclear energy industry looks set to become a world leader, Seoul will first have to address domestic corruption in the atomic sector and international questions regarding its right to reprocess spent fuel at home.

The lack of oversight in South Korea’s nuclear power sector and the resulting corruption are a pressing matter in the wake of a scandal late last month in which a whistle-blower revealed that two nuclear reactors were using cables that had fake safety certificates.  ROK authorities immediately shut down the reactors in question and delayed the activation of a third. The incident invoked memories of a similar controversy last November in which two reactors were suspended for using parts with falsified safety certificates. 

Engineers and suppliers in connection with the 2012 scandal have been arrested, while South Korean President Park Geun-hye has pledged a thorough investigation of the recent breach – including a review of all 23 reactors and a probe of the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Such a comprehensive review will be a formidable undertaking given the 50 year history of an industry lacking accountability in which agencies in charge of safety oversight were also responsible for nuclear power promotion until 2011. Even after those roles were formally separated, pervasive bribery and a revolving door of stakeholders have undermined efforts to root out corruption.

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President Park will have her hands full tackling corporate governance in South Korea’s nuclear energy industry, in addition to somehow managing the country’s upcoming summer power shortage as a result of the reactor shut-downs. Although the Hanbit 3 reactor has been scheduled to come back online, current power capacity is 77 electric megawatts (MWe) – which is less than the projected demand of 79 MWe for the coming months. It will be a hot summer for firms and households that now have to cut energy use unless additional measures are taken to bolster the country’s power supply.

Another formidable obstacle to South Korea’s nuclear power sector is acquiring the right to handle the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear reactors produce electricity through the fission of nuclei in either uranium or plutonium atoms – a process that releases a lot of energy. The perplexing issue however is that these fissile materials also form the core of a nuclear warhead.

South Korea is currently not allowed to indigenously produce fissile material under the provisions of a 1972 agreement with the United States. However, given ROK’s desire to compete in international sales of nuclear reactors and the country’s limited space for the storage of spent fuel (nuclear waste), Seoul has been keen to gain the ability to re-use fissile materials  in order to offer full fuel cycle expertise to potential customers and to shrink the saturation of spent fuel going into storage sites.

The United States has resisted this due to non-proliferation concerns and worries about tensions with North Korea and Iran. It is hard to doubt South Korea’s non-proliferation credentials: ROK is a faithful signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has upheld its commitment to a 1992 joint declaration with North Korea not to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel – despite the fact that North Korea reneged on that same agreement. However, Washington may still be uncomfortable in light of a small but growing number of South Koreans calling for nuclear arms and lingering memories of former President Park Chung-hee’s failed race for the bomb in the 1970’s.

South Korean scientists and policymakers are trying to allay these concerns with a technique known as pyroprocessing. In contrast to traditional reprocessing of spent fuel, plutonium derived from pyroprocessing is mixed with other elements, preventing it from being used for nuclear weapons. As South Korea cooperates with the United States in further R&D related to pyroprocessing, Seoul might not be able to rely on this technique as a way to wiggle around the 123 Agreement with Washington or as a silver bullet for its export and storage goals – at least for the time being.

Assuming that South Korea does gain approval to conduct pyroprocessing, it may take years to do so in a way that is both technically and economically viable. The Diplomat spoke with Olli Heinonen, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who said that “[t]he product to the ROK pyroprocessing scheme is a uranium/transuranium/zirconium fuel, which is not suitable to fuel ROK’s LWR [Light Water Reactor] or CANDU [Canada Deuterium Uranium] reactors. Thus ROK is developing a prototype Sodium Fast Reactor (SFR), which is planned to be operational around 2028.  A commercial scale SFR is envisioned to be available by the mid of the Century.”

In addition to a long wait time, pyroprocessing results in other fissile materials like Neptunium that can be used for nuclear bombs and must be safeguarded. Neptunium must be separated out, but as Dr. Heinonen added, “[i]t is fairly easy and straight forward for the IAEA to monitor and confirm that this does not take place.” This will mean that additional safeguarding efforts would need to be implemented – all of which will ultimately depend on South Korea’s willingness to abide by them.

Finally, how proliferation resistant is pyroprocessing in terms of achieving pure plutonium metal needed for nuclear weapons and timing? Dr. Heinonen gave his take: “The fact that plutonium is not fully separated from other elements gives to the ROK officials basis to argue that this difference makes pyroprocessing more proliferation resistant than traditional reprocessing.”

“In order to have pure plutonium separated, additional process steps are required either at the pyroprocessing plant or at a separate installation, which would be found by the IAEA. If such process steps are made it would take 1-3 weeks to turn the material to plutonium metal. However, before that the process steps need to be developed and constructed, but the bottom line is that by having the envisioned uranium/plutonium metal, a proliferator is substantially closer to pure plutonium metal.” 

In that case, South Korea’s nuclear power industry is caught between a rock and a hard place. Seoul’s desire for “peaceful nuclear sovereignty” is very understandable, especially in light of the fact that it is running out of storage space for the spent fuel its reactors continue to churn out – in addition to the reasonable desire to address South Korea’s glaring energy issues and to become a world leader in nuclear reactor exports

Although both parties to the 123 Agreement have agreed to extend the deal by two years—thereby buying both sides time to negotiate— President Park’s government may ultimately need to forgo sensitive fuel cycling for the time being. This is not just to keep tensions low on the Korean Peninsula, but also looking to future negotiations with North Korea which may use its southern neighbor’s reprocessing as an excuse to deflect demands for Pyongyang to cease its illicit nuclear activities. If a nuclear-armed North Korea is “unacceptable,” then Seoul may have to find other ways to deal with its export and storage issues, such as by tackling corruption and sending spent fuel abroad – which will be necessary anyway. This will be a difficult issue that the South Korean people will ultimately have to decide on. But as they investigate the viability of pyroprocessing on a safeguarding and commercial basis, it is likely that they will develop more innovative solutions to meet the nuclear challenges they face.

Sebastian Sarmiento-Saher is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.

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