[Viewpoint] The case against reprocessing

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[Viewpoint] The case against reprocessing

Scientists at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in early 2000 secretly conducted experiments on three different occasions to separate uranium isotopes, a chemical process to split enriched uranium out of natural uranium.

As result, they succeeded in enriching 200 milligrams of uranium to almost nuclear weapon grade, or up to 77 percent, using the laser experiment. The experiment was later discovered and reported to Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency who readied a report about the event for the Board of Governors. In response, the Seoul government threatened to lobby against ElBaradei’s campaign for a third term.

The unwavering director-general, however, reported the affair to the IAEA Board of Governors anyway. Seoul insisted it had little knowledge of the scientific experiment, and the agency after a full-scale investigation decided not to make a formal finding of non-compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Years before, President Park Chung Hee was intent on developing nuclear weapons in 1972 after a large number of American troops pulled out. In 1973, the government placed an order with France for a nuclear reprocessing facility. But the trade fell through at Washington’s insistence. Yet in the 1980s, Korea succeeded in extracting the popular uranium mineral autunite from phosphate.

Radioactivity is a double-edged sword. It can be peacefully used to generate electricity and can be applied to medical uses. But at the same time, it can produce nuclear bombs. Those campaigning for nuclear sovereignty here say South Korea needs nuclear weapons to deter a North Korean nuclear attack because of the risk that the American nuclear umbrella is receding.

Moreover, North Korea does not show any signs of giving up its nuclear weapons. The less hawkish side also agrees on a certain level of nuclear power to maintain the pride of a sovereign state. Talk of nuclear sovereignty has resurfaced as the Korea-U.S. Atomic Agreement nears its expiration in 2014 after renewal in 1974.

Nuclear sovereignty supporters argue South Korea at least needs a reprocessing facility. The waste facilities at 20 nuclear reactors will hit their capacity levels by 2016. But we would gain nothing from the logic that we need reprocessing facilities to complete the nuclear cycle.

First of all, our strongest ally, the United States, suspects the ulterior motive behind our desire to build reprocessing facilities. Our past ambition on a nuclear weapons program in 1970s is the main reason. Under the atomic agreement with the U.S., we need approval from Washington for any process of changing the content of the spent nuclear fuel.

But we would hardly get approval from the U.S. Congress to allow reprocessing because, 1) We no longer have Washington’s trust and 2) The world has grown sensitive to any uranium-related enrichment and reprocessing activity. Without renewal of the treaty with the U.S., we cannot fulfill the $20 billion nuclear reactor facilities exports to the United Arab Emirates and cannot run our nuclear reactors after the treaty expires in 2014.

The North Korean nuclear program is another reason. Korea and the other four countries in the six-nation talks are pressing North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons campaign.

The essence of the Six-Party Joint Statement and Action Plan on North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement of Sept. 19, 2007, centers on halting North Korea’s reprocessing of spent fuel. Washington won’t endorse South Korea’s reprocessing while demanding the North do the same.

Reprocessing also does not make economic sense. One facility costs more than $10 billion to build. If we use imported uranium, the spending may drop to the millions.

That’s why Japan imports uranium even though it has reprocessing facilities. It is wishful thinking to hope the U.S. will condone less dangerous pyroprocessing technology. American mainstream scientists consider pyroprocessing equally perilous and capable of developing nuclear weapons.

The rallying cry for nuclear sovereignty is a mug’s game for feeding hollow populism. We may gain national pride if we own reprocessing technology. But we will have more to lose on the economic and diplomatic fronts. Such talk will not help, but damage the country. The U.S.-Korea Atomic Agreement is best silently renewed. It is not correct to demand nuclear sovereignty when the North Korean nuclear problem is unresolved and when we can least afford it.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie

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