Tread carefully on nuclear pact
Speaking to international and local press, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said South Korea should revise its nuclear power accord with the United States in the near future to incorporate our commercial needs for supplying and reprocessing nuclear fuel.
In sum, the country is looking to get back its rights to complete the nuclear fuel cycle through the self-enrichment of uranium and the recycling or reprocessing of used nuclear fuel.
The basic direction is right; however, a more prudent approach seems necessary in handling this type of matter.
Economically speaking, completion of the nuclear fuel cycle makes sense for the Republic of Korea, which is the fifth-largest country in terms of commercial nuclear production. After all, 40 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from nuclear reactors.
According to the pact with the United States agreed to in 1974, South Korea cannot domestically enrich uranium and reprocess used nuclear fuel without the consent of Washington.
The pact was meant to ease concerns over the potential military use of nuclear power.
Korea has the technology and know-how to design nuclear plants and make nuclear fuel. But it must import nuclear fuel, which costs a huge amount of money. The country also must dump waste from 700 tons of nuclear fuel - generated from 20 reactors - in water tanks due to the ban on recycling. Waste levels have already reached 10,000 tons and will overwhelm storage capacity by 2016.
Thus, recovering our peaceful nuclear sovereignty makes sense when viewed only from the economic side.
Furthermore, renegotiating the terms of the pact is necessary anyhow, as the current agreement with the United States expires in 2014.
Still, it is not desirable for the government to publicly declare the need for Korea to be able to reprocess nuclear fuel.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, nullifying the 1992 inter-Korean agreement to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless South Korea’s call for completing the nuclear cycle leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding.
It could trigger a diplomatic collision with Washington, as the U.S. State Department has already publicly voiced opposition to changes to the existing pact. So the argument to opposing the United States might lead to conflict.
To attain sovereignty in the commercial use of nuclear power, we need to gain trust from the international community first, as Japan did.
The government should not join the populist cry for nuclear deterrence out of impulse. Discretion is most desired in perilous times.