Revisiting Reprocessing in South Korea

The U.S. doesn’t want to hear about it

By Dan Yurman

The Cold War is over and North Korea has another nut job for a political leader, this time it is an untested youth still shy of his 30th birthday. Claims by the United States that South Korea must not pursue uranium enrichment and reprocessing because of the unpredictability of its northern neighbor are getting little traction in Seoul these days. The reason is that South Korea is a major user and exporter of civilian nuclear energy. It wants energy security and to recover the energy value in a growing inventory of spent fuel from its reactors.

According to World Nuclear News, South Korea is now a major nuclear energy country. It won a $20-billion contract to supply four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates. Within the past two months, the UAE nuclear safety agency approved a license for the first unit and construction is underway at a remote site on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Three more South Korean reactors will be built there by 2020.

Today, 23 reactors provide one-third of South Korea’s electricity from 20.7 GWe of plant. The government says it intends to provide 59 percent of electricity from 40 units by 2030.

Nuclear energy remains a strategic priority for South Korea, and capacity is planned to increase by 56 percent to 27.3 GWe by 2020, and then to 43 GWe by 2030.

Revising a 40 year old treaty

Comes now the request by the South Korean government, first aired in October 2010, to revise the bilateral cooperation treaty with the U.S. It has been in place for more than 40 years and it is a cornerstone of U.S./South Korean diplomatic relations.

Many specialists in the field of nonproliferation see a “hard and fast” policy against any expansion of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing as a key to stopping states like North Korea from pursuing these activities. That strategy hasn’t worked and, as a result, South Korea wants relief from the restriction in the now-decades-old treaty.

Negotiations over changes to the treaty have been going on since last December, but appear to be stalemated around a key set of issues. It is a delicate dance, as diplomats like to say, because if the U.S. leans too heavily on South Korea, it could sour relations between the two countries and spawn nationalist sentiment that might lead to a nuclear weapons program. Since the 1950s, South Korea has depended on the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a shield against aggression from its neighbor to the north.

Spent fuel with no place to put it?

But South Korea doesn’t appear to want its own weapons. Instead, what it has told the U.S. is that it wants to reprocess fuel from its growing commercial fleet and to create fuel for new reactors. The country has more than 10,000 tonnes of spent fuel stored at its civilian reactors. It is producing 700 tonnes per year of spent fuel and expects to run out of space by 2016. A geologic repository in the densely populated country seems out of the question.

The trouble is that the current treaty inked in 1972 allows South Korea to import nuclear reactor technology in return for a ban on enrichment and reprocessing. South Korea’s first commercial nuclear reactor entered revenue service in 1978 and the latest in 2012.

The big issue on the reprocessing side is what will be done with the plutonium extracted from the spent fuel. U.S. nonproliferation experts claim that its mere presence in South Korea, regardless of international controls and inspections, will inflame relations with North Korea. South Korean government officials call this reasoning nonsense, since North Korea has already been producing plutonium and has its own uranium enrichment capabilities.

Gary Samore, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism

The current position of the U.S. government, as expressed by its chief negotiator Gary Samore, is that it does not want to change the treaty.

Instead, the U.S. wants South Korea to continue to get its nuclear fuel from France or the U.S. The country gets up to 30 percent per year of its nuclear fuel from the U.S. and the rest from France.

What’s good for the goose?

For its part, South Korea calls this position hypocritical, pointing out that Japan enriches uranium and reprocesses spent fuel. Even more to this point, South Korea says that the U.S., for strategic reasons, supported India’s request to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group even though India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1988. In short, South Korea is not buying what it calls a “double standard” from the U.S.

In response, U.S. diplomats have let slip to South Korean news media that they harbor a “deep distrust” of South Korea’s intentions due to a clandestine weapons effort that briefly operated in the 1970s under then President Park Jung-hee.

A face-saving plan offered in principle by the U.S. is for South Korea to adopt a so-called “proliferation resistant” technology for reprocessing fuel called pyroprocessing. The method does not initially separate plutonium in a way that allows it to be refined for use in a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has offered South Korea financial assistance to conduct tests on the technology. Critics call this a diplomatic fig leaf, saying that eventually weapons grade material could be extracted if the country really wants it.

For South Korea, the objectives for change are clear. What the U.S. will need are iron clad agreements that the South Korean government will never pursue “nuclear sovereignty,” and agree to international oversight and inspections.

Even with these measures, U.S. diplomats see enrichment and reprocessing in South Korea as “incentives” for North Korea to increase its investment in nuclear weapons. Nonproliferation experts remain divided about whether or not limiting South Korea’s access to enrichment and reprocessing will have any useful effect on its neighbor to the north.

Samore says that the U.S. hopes to ink a new treaty by 2014. He’s got his work cut out for him.

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Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

9 Responses to Revisiting Reprocessing in South Korea

  1. Didn’t South Korea always want Pyroprocessing? Or have they pursued PUREX in the negotiations?

  2. It appears now they are willing to go down the path to pyroprocessing if the U.S. will agree. It is not clear there is a consensus among U.S. nonproliferation policy types this is the solution. A proposal for a $10M, 5-yr R&D program seems insufficient to move ahead from South Korea’s point of view.

  3. This is likely to end badly for those that wish to keep enrichment/reprocessing technology from expanding. The combination of a raft of non-weapon related reasons for pursuing this path and the waning influence of of the NPT ‘haves’ on the nuclear energy policies of ‘have not’ nations almost guarantees that this subject will keep coming up.

    Rather than try to keep the status quo, the whole subject needs to be revisited and a new broad policy forged which takes the changing global picture into account.

  4. Giving South Korea the ability to separate plutonium (regardless of the reprocessing method used) or enrich uranium is the equivalent of making them a scorpion that can be placed in a bottle with the North Koreans. I remember very well a “police action” that erupted in the Korean peninsula more than 60 years ago and nearly led to World War III. Another solution is needed: remember GNEP?

  5. If a country has the ability to take what comes out of pyroprocessing (a mixture of actinides) and then turn it into weapons grade plutonium, that country is more than capable of building a weapon using easier methods like enriching uranium.

    A quasi-religious belief seems to be circulating through parts of the United States government that enriching uranium or recycling spent fuel will cause those involved to build weapons. As pointed out in the article, NOT allowing countries like South Korea to work their own nuclear fuel cycle is just as likely (if not moreso) to drive them to produce weapons.

    The genie has been out of the bottle for over half a century. If we really want to destroy stuff like plutonium, then lets pursue ways to use it completely as reactor fuel. The IFR and the LFTR come to mind as possible solutions.

  6. Martin Burkle

    Do you think our State Department and our Department of Energy talk to each other? It seems to me that the DOE is actively working with South Korea to perfect pyro-processing. While at the same time, the State Department is trying to stop South Korea’s pyro-processing project.
    As an example, out in Idaho a really innovative way of measuring/detecting radioactive sources using a Wilson cloud chamber and a game computer was designed. This detector would make the accounting for nuclear material much easier during pyro-processing. Once conceived, the next DOE step has been to give the detector design to the South Koreans for further development.
    It’s as if the DOE considers the South Koreans to be partners in the development of pyro-processing and fast reactors. In my opinion, we should build good partners because we are too timid to do any serious development ourselves.

  7. Good article. I had forgotten that North Korea is living proof that these quixotic bans on civilian reprocessing have zero effect on countries that really want nuclear bombs. The U.S. and ROK signed their deal in the early 70s; DPRK pursued a bomb all through the 80s, 90s, and finally succeeded in 2006.

    DPRK leaders probably consider F. von Hippel one of the great writers of comedy.

  8. The South Koreans should absolutely go ahead with reprocessing, because trying to close the nuclear fuel cycle is the right thing to do. There should be a reality check with these proliferation obsessed policy maker types in Washington. This is a typical phenomenon of “Only in America”, other nuclear powers like France and Russia don’t have this unhealthy obsession with non-proliferation issues.

    Those American policy makers also tend to forget that it was seven decades ago that the first nuclear chain reaction took place in Chicago. It is only natural that less technologically advanced countries than the USA and South Korea, will eventually catch up with 1940s technology.

  9. The great part of this is that pyro-processing was the last link in the Integral Fast Reactor effort, and if South Korea helps to prove it at commercial scale, the last roadblock to metal-fuel, fast-spectrum reactors running on a closed fuel cycle will have fallen.