South Korea Wants to Reprocess Nuclear Fuel Domestically

Jul 14, 2010
By Sarah Bulley
South Korea is seeking to amend an agreement with the United States that prevents it from reprocessing uranium used in its domestic nuclear energy program. South Korea, which relies heavily on nuclear energy, is running low on space to store spent nuclear fuel rods. Some policymakers in the U.S. fear that the South’s reprocessing activities could produce plutonium to be used in a nuclear warhead.
This puts the U.S. in a bit of a predicament. It is trying to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program and halt the enrichment taking place in Iran, all while promoting its own domestic nonproliferation agenda. Although South Korea is a signatory to the NPT and is in good standing with its obligations to the regime, the U.S. must consider the consequences of an altered fuel policy. Yesterday, Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times wrote
Washington wants to rein in the spread of reprocessing and enrichment as it grapples with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs. It retains some suspicions about South Korea, which briefly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and experimented with reprocessing later. Allowing South Korea to reprocess or enrich the fuel, the United States fears, would set a precedent for other nations and give North Korea a pretext not to abandon its nuclear weapons program.   
South Korea maintains that it will not use the fuel for weapons, and instead hopes to use “proliferation-resistant” pyroprocessing techniques to avoid the production of plutonium. There are still doubts, however. As reported by GSN:
Critics of the technology, though, said a nation with South Korea's level of technical proficiency could easily prepare plutonium produced by the method for use in a bomb.
With tensions on the Korean Peninsula at their worst in years, it is not a stretch to imagine that South Korea would feel more comfortable with its own nuclear arsenal to balance against Pyongyang’s missiles. Cheon Seong-whun, of the Korea Institute for National Unification, promises that Korea relies too heavily on U.S. extended deterrence to attempt to develop its own nuclear arsenal:
“We are not the South Korea of old days,” Mr. Cheon said. “We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us. The Americans continue to look at us through the old lens.”
South Korea has also complained about the double-standard in place. India, while not a signatory to the NPT, is nonetheless allowed to trade in nuclear technology with the U.S. as part of an exception that was approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group under the Bush administration. This exception has been in the news lately because of a similar exception that China may try to obtain to build nuclear reactors in Pakistan. Because India is not an NPT member, it can reprocess spent nuclear fuel, but South Korea cannot without permission of the U.S. As Stephen M. Walt wrote today in Foreign Policy:
South Korea is a long-time U.S. ally and an NPT signatory, while India is a nuclear weapons state that has yet to sign the NPT. Yet the Indians got advance U.S. consent for reprocessing in its nuclear deal with the United States, while South Korea is getting stiffed. 
Alternatives may include exporting spent nuclear material from South Korea to France or another country to be reprocessed, but Seoul says it has the right to reprocess domestically. The 1974 U.S.-South Korean agreement is not due to expire until 2014, leaving Seoul only a few years to wait if an altered agreement is not reached with the U.S.
In addition to reprocessing, the 1974 agreement bars South Korea from enriching uranium domestically. It seems as though Seoul is growing weary of this arrangement and wants more domestic control over its nuclear program. To avoid further nuclear hypocrisy, the U.S. should accede to South Korea’s wishes and allow it more power over its own nuclear energy activities.
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