S. Korea raises eyebrows over move to process nuclear fuel on its own

July 24, 2012

By AKIRA NAKANO/ Correspondent

SEOUL--South Korea is negotiating with the United States to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from its power plants and to enrich uranium, the South Korean media reported July 23.

South Korea is believed to be aspiring to become a nuclear-power giant free of U.S. intervention, but the move is expected to face objections inside and outside the country due to concerns about possibly using such fuel to make nuclear weapons.

Major conservative newspapers, including the Chosun Ilbo, ran reports saying that Seoul was seeking U.S. agreement on domestic reprocessing and enrichment in talks on revising a nuclear energy agreement in place since 1974.

Washington was reportedly showing reluctance, out of concerns over nuclear proliferation.

South Korean anti-nuke civic groups said the move runs counter to the wishes of South Koreans, who want a nuclear-free world.

Under the nuclear deal signed between the two nations 38 years ago, reprocessing fuel and enrichment require prior U.S. approval. It is believed the deal was sought to deter moves by President Park Chung-hee, who was pushing for a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s.

In 1991, Seoul concluded a joint declaration on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with Pyongyang. The two Koreas agreed they would not conduct atomic bomb tests and would not have facilities to reprocess nuclear fuel and to enrich uranium.

But the declaration was effectively neutralized by the North’s nuclear tests. The South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo described the nuclear agreement with the United States as an unequal pact because of the restriction on handling nuclear fuel.

With the pact set to expire in 2014, the South Korean government has held rounds of talks with the U.S. side on a revision.

Concerns over nuclear power have also been high in South Korea since the onset of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Japan in March last year.

But President Lee Myung-bak’s administration has maintained its goals of adding nuclear plants and increasing nuclear power-related exports. A new reactor was put into commercial operation on July 20, bringing the country’s number of reactors to 22.

The government has argued that the reprocessing is necessary. It says that is due to storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel to reach their limit from around 2016, with the country’s oldest Kori nuclear power plant, which has operated for 34 years, topping the list.

The nuclear industry is apparently concerned about the fact that the country depends completely on other countries for uranium enrichment.

“People in the sector have shared the awareness of the need of commercial enrichment facilities to secure a certain amount of fuel domestically,” an expert said. “They also believe such facilities would be helpful for more power plants in the country and nuclear exports.”

In a recent revision of its Atomic Energy Basic Law, Japan added the words “to contribute to our national security.” In response, criticisms mounted in South Korea. One said, “Japan has opened the way to nuclear armament.”

At the South Korean National Assembly on July 19, a ruling party lawmaker made an issue of the Japanese revision, saying, “We should have nuclear weapons.”

But Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik responded, “Not developing nuclear weapons is the government’s basic stance.”

Meanwhile, major opposition candidates for December's presidential election have expressed their support for abandoning nuclear power.

The issue of the reprocessing and enrichment could also affect discussions over North Korea’s nuclear problem, observers said.

By AKIRA NAKANO/ Correspondent
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In operation since 1978, the Kori nuclear power plant in suburban Busan is the oldest nuclear power plant in South Korea. (Akira Nakano)

In operation since 1978, the Kori nuclear power plant in suburban Busan is the oldest nuclear power plant in South Korea. (Akira Nakano)

  • In operation since 1978, the Kori nuclear power plant in suburban Busan is the oldest nuclear power plant in South Korea. (Akira Nakano)

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