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South Korea Waiting for U.S. Response on Atomic Fuel Reprocessing

South Korea has made limited headway in convincing the United States that it should be allowed to reprocess nuclear material, a high-ranking official in Seoul told the Yonhap News Agency on Monday (see GSN, March 8).

"We delivered our stance (on revising the nuclear pact) to the U.S. side in February, but a review (by the U.S. side on the stance) has been delayed," the unidentified Foreign Ministry official said (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, July 23).

Washington and Seoul are negotiating a new civilian nuclear cooperation pact that is to replace a decades-old accord set to expire in 2014. The South wants the updated accord to permit the use of pyroprocessing to recycle spent atomic fuel. The experimental technology's promoters assert it is more proliferation-resistant than traditional reprocessing techniques as it leaves separated plutonium mixed with other nuclear materials. Skeptics argue the technology still produces plutonium that could be diverted for use in a nuclear weapons program.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan offered cautious optimism on the outlook for bilateral negotiations on reprocessing, the Korea Herald reported.

"As far as I understand, the U.S. position is not that it would never allow Seoul to reprocess (spent fuel)," Kim said. "It's been four decades since the [expiring nuclear trade] pact was signed. (We) will clarify our demands in due consideration of changes (in Korea's status in the realm of nuclear energy)."

South Korea is one of the world's top producers of nuclear energy and it wants the right to reprocess spent fuel to support the domestic and international expansion of its atomic industry.

Analysts say Seoul could do more to assure Washington it will only use the sensitive technology for nonmilitary purposes (see GSN, June 4).

"What is very crucial at this point is that we should convince the U.S. that we will not use nuclear power militarily," Korea National Diplomatic Academy analyst Yun Duk-min told the Herald. "Japan has successfully established its position for peaceful use of nuclear power and now has the reprocessing authority."

"Rather than dealing with this issue with the logic that the pact is unfair, we need to entrench a climate for the peaceful use of atomic power. We need to take a cautious approach in the negotiations," he continued (Song Sang-ho, Korea Herald, July 23).

Meanwhile, the White House's point man for arms control and nonproliferation, Gary Samore, said the Obama administration sees no rationale for South Korea bringing uranium enrichment to its soil, Yonhap reported.

Like plutonium reprocessing, uranium enrichment can be used both to produce reactor fuel and warhead-grade material.

South Korea can continue to purchase low-enriched uranium from nations such as France and the United States and thus does not need to have an enrichment capability of its own to power its atomic reactors, Samore said.

"So there is no danger that Korean industry will not be able to get access to low-enriched uranium," the senior National Security Council official said in an interview with South Korean news outlets.

"You don't have to worry about any limit Korea will have" on accessing LEU stocks, Samore continued.

He said he did not know when formal talks between the United States and South Korea on a new nuclear accord would wrap up. "I think there will be a solution but I can't predict exactly when the solution will happen. We have until 2014 and everybody in both Washington and Seoul is deeply committed to continuing our peaceful nuclear cooperation" (Lee Chi-dong, Yonhap News Agency II, July 23).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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