[VIEWPOINT]Korea as a nuclear hub

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[VIEWPOINT]Korea as a nuclear hub

The fact that Korean researchers separated 0.2 grams of uranium while working on a task to produce domestic nuclear fuel in 2000 is causing a stir.
Some foreign press reports are saying that this is a clear violation of the nuclear non-proliferation pact, and are even proposing an investigation into whether or not Korea has a secret nuclear program. In addition, there is criticism that Korea violated the anti-nuclear declaration made jointly with North Korea in 1992, and there are even voices of concern that this will have a negative effect on the six-way talk on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Natural uranium is made up of approximately 0.7 percent U-235, which has an atomic weight of 235, and 99.3 percent U-238. U-235 and U-238 are isotopes, variations on the same element.
For electrical generation with atomic energy, nuclear fuel with 3 to 4 percent of U-235 is needed to split the atoms and extract the energy. Uranium is enriched to increase the ratio of U-235. In order to create a nuclear weapon, at least 5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium of over 90 percent U-235 is needed. But the amount and the extent of enrichment (an average of 10 percent) of the uranium the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute worked with, along with the purpose of the experiment and the instruments used, show that this experiment was conducted out of pure scientific interest, far from developing a nuclear weapon.
Despite the fact that the Korean government submitted a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the scientific experiment, in accordance with the IAEA nuclear safety guidelines, it is absurd to assume it was an enrichment experiment for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.
I cannot help but think about the countries that blatantly ignored agreements and went ahead with atomic weapons experiments, and the great amount of plutonium the Japanese possess despite the concerns of the anti-nuclear activist Jinzaburo Takagi, who passed away recently.
I took part in a regional cooperation project called “A Study of the Average Asian for Radiation Safety” for four years from 1996 with the support of the IAEA. At that time, I had the experience of separating U-235 from used fuel by using radiochemistry to get precise measurements. Radioactive isotopes are often separated like this and used for research on human health or safety without any problems.
From my experience of working at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and as a nuclear chemist who participated in many domestic atomic energy research and development projects, I am fully aware that Korean policy makers and related scientists are making efforts for the peaceful and safe use of atomic energy technology. It is regrettable, but there exists strong anti-atomic energy emotions in Korea.
That is why, until today, there is no radioactive waste disposal center, not even for less potent radioactive wastes. Moreover, even research and development for peaceful and scientific purposes is suspect in Korea. I cannot help but feel sad about the domestic situation. To make this an occasion for national development, I think it necessary for Korea to concentrate its efforts on nuclear technology development in the health and environment fields more specifically and actively.
Radioactivity was first discovered by Antoine H. Becqurel in 1897, and came to be perceived by ordinary people as something to fear in the form of an atomic bomb. But mankind is exposed to radiation that exists in nature, and we need to develop atomic energy technologies to protect ourselves from the radiation, because safety comes from using technology properly.
I suggest setting up a Northeast Asian hub for the research and development of health and environment using radioactive isotopes with Korea taking a leading role in conjunction with the IAEA and other Asian countries for the development of safe technologies that will only be used to advance human welfare.
With this we will be able to wipe out any domestic or international concerns over the direction of Korean atomic energy technology developments, and also develop related high-tech industries such as life science, environmental engineering and information technology.
Atomic bombs threaten our safety and happiness, but atomic technology can greatly contribute to our safety and happiness. Especially at a time like this when the Korean people have lost their national goals and identity, we need to concentrate even more on the development of technology that can be beneficial to mankind at large, by using once-feared atomic energy technology.
We need to use the recent events as a new opportunity to make the Korean Peninsula a leading country in Northeast Asia by utilizing atomic energy technology for humans.

* The writer is a professor of nuclear chemistry at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Cho Seung-yeon
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