Features | Security | East Asia

Another Korean Nuclear Issue

South Korea wants to boost its nuclear capacity. In an already proliferation prone part of the world, this has the US worried.

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.

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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.

Washington’s concern reflects how easily these technologies can be misused—as demonstrated by neighbouring North Korea—to make nuclear bombs. Experts can employ reprocessing to recycle the plutonium in the spent fuel for reuse as reactor fuel, or separate the plutonium and employ it as the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Similarly, uranium enriched to a low level of 4 to 5 percent can make excellent fuel for many commercial nuclear reactors, but with further enrichment it can be used to power a nuclear explosion.

When the 1974 ROK-U.S. Agreement Concerning Civil Uses of Nuclear Energy—which applies to all of the considerable nuclear material and technologies South Korea has obtained from the United States—was agreed, Washington was concerned about evidence that Seoul’s then military-led government might seek nuclear weapons to hedge against an American military withdrawal from Asia following the US defeat in the Vietnam War, a loss that contributed to a resurgence of isolationist sentiment in the United States. Indeed, Washington intervened on several occasions to dissuade foreign governments from transferring sensitive reprocessing technologies to Seoul.

Although few South Koreans currently harbour nuclear weapons ambitions—thanks in part to the enduring US military presence in Asia as well as the emergence of a democratic government and a vigorously free South Korean press that would make pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme difficult—these benign conditions could change during the next two decades when the new reactors and reprocessing technologies would become available.

More immediately though, South Korea’s use of reprocessing and enrichment would make it harder to deny North Korea the right to engage in comparable activities. In their 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, both Korean governments forswore uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Although Pyongyang went on to violate this non-proliferation commitment (and many others besides), the United States and South Korea still aim to use the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms to roll back the North’s nuclear programmes and restore the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear-weapons-free status.

But it’s not only the North Korean issue that’s complicating the US-South Korea negotiations. The 2008 Indian-US nuclear cooperation agreement grants New Delhi the option to recycle US-origin fuel in a future Indian reprocessing facility under appropriate International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. As South Koreans frequently point out, unlike New Delhi, Seoul has acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state and has never detonated a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, South Korean experts claim that the pyroprocessing reprocessing technology they plan to use is ‘proliferation-resistant’ because the resulting plutonium isn’t entirely separated from other nuclear materials. Since the impurities make it unusable as fissile material for a nuclear weapon, they claim pyroprocessing shouldn’t see the same objections from Washington as more traditional reprocessing technologies.

But US nuclear experts don’t consider pyroprocessing substantially less proliferation prone than conventional reprocessing techniques and sceptics anyway note, perhaps not unreasonably, that ‘proliferation-resistant’ isn’t ‘proliferation-proof’ and that countries with advanced nuclear technologies and expertise could convert pyroprocessed plutonium into weapons-usable material.

The problem for US ties with its Korean ally is that South Koreans might (or so some in Washington fear) misinterpret American non-proliferation objections as reflecting a mistrust of Seoul’s intentions rather than a concern for how South Korean policies could affect the calculations of other potential proliferators. No one in Washington thinks that Seoul will soon make atomic bombs as long as the United States remains committed to South Korea’s defence. And of course South Koreans have the right to engage in peaceful nuclear activities. The problem is that the world can’t long survive if 100 countries have the capacity to make nuclear weapons in a matter of months because they want to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel.

Of all the regions in the world, Asia is a particular proliferation concern since China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States all have major nuclear weapons programmes, while Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea already have the industrial capacity and scientific-technical expertise to launch such programmes. Throw in additional evidence that appeared earlier this year that Burma may be seeking to develop the capacity to ultimately make nuclear weapons and the dangers become clear.

But a solution to all this does exist, and it’s one that could help head off what may otherwise be just the first in a string of disputes between Washington and Asian nations–allow South Korea to engage in uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, but within the framework of a multinational East Asian nuclear fuel bank under IAEA oversight. The arrangement would allow countries with nuclear reactors but not indigenous fuel-making capabilities (which could include perhaps a dozen Asian states) to obtain reactor fuel from an international nuclear service centre, perhaps even one based in South Korea, rather than develop their own independent uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technologies. This would mean that South Korea could sell nuclear fuel to the repository and nuclear reactors to its foreign customers, with the centre requiring acceptance of both the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards and its Additional Protocol as a condition of receipt.

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Two years from now, Seoul will host the second nuclear security summit, whose aim is to curb nuclear proliferation and terrorism. At the first such summit in Washington this April, the Obama administration successfully lobbied on Seoul’s behalf in recognition of South Korea’s strong non-proliferation credentials. The 2012 summit therefore provides a real opportunity to launch the proposed multinational fuel service initiative, under joint South Korean-US leadership.

Whether this chance will be taken or not, though, remains to be seen.