[Viewpoint] In nuclear talks, don’t spare the rods

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[Viewpoint] In nuclear talks, don’t spare the rods

Korea and the United States on Monday will begin negotiations in Washington to revise their bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, which is due to expire in 2014. The cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Korean governments concerns the civil use of atomic energy and was signed in 1974. But renegotiating the agreement will last for three years until 2013. And unless a new deal is reached, Korea’s nuclear energy industry, which is completely dependent on imported low-enriched uranium, will face a serious crisis.

Korea first took steps 30 years ago to use nuclear energy, and it is now the world’s fifth-largest atomic energy user. With the recent deal to export four reactors to the United Arab Emirates, it also became the sixth nuclear reactor technology exporter in the world.

Meanwhile, the international community’s concerns about the uses of atomic energy have grown. When used peacefully, nuclear energy is the most effective tool for development such as in Korea and Japan, which lack natural resources. But without stopping nations and nonstate groups that are aiming to use nuclear energy for military purposes, the world will face an uncontrollable proliferation of nuclear weapons.

That is why the revision of the U.S.-Korea nuclear energy deal is not just a bilateral matter, but a global issue. The revision must achieve two goals at the same time: autonomy in the peaceful use of nuclear energy and absolute prevention of atomic proliferation that could feed nuclear weapons programs.

Seoul must negotiate with Washington on the need to freely acquire enriched uranium for the peaceful use of nuclear power. There are a bevy of issues to be discussed, including a revision of the current condition that Korea must obtain U.S. permission for every nuclear activity and the proposal to recycle used fuels.

Korea currently has 20 reactors, and it needs to get more than 50 percent of its electricity through nuclear power generation by 2030. Because the country needs to expand its peaceful use of nuclear energy, the reality it faces is drastically different from that of 1974. Seoul must make that point clear to persuade the United States.

The key issue is how to handle used fuel rods. As of June 2010, about 11,000 tons of used fuel rods are stored inside the nuclear power plants temporarily. By 2016, the temporary storage space will run out, and the used fuel rods must be relocated to an interim storage place. The interim storage is necessary because the used fuel rods will be valuable for Korea, which lacks resources, in the future if a completely military-free recycling technology is developed.

If Korea gives up the possibility of recycling the used fuel rods and disposes of them, it will have to find nuclear waste disposal sites. The country is known for its small size, but nuclear waste disposal sites would occupy an area several times bigger than Yeouido.

By applying advanced technologies for recycling, the amount of nuclear waste would be decreased and energy recycling to produce electricity would be possible. That’s why Korea is seeking this goal. One of the key projects in energy recycling is pyroprocessing technology. The technology is in the research stage, but is already known to be the least vulnerable technology to be exploited for producing nuclear weapons.

As contrasted to technology in Japan that reprocesses fuel rods to obtain plutonium, the key concept of pyroprocessing technology is “group recovery,” which prevents proliferation because separating plutonium from the spent fuel rods is impossible.

The United States, however, does not want to allow the technology to be used to recycle used fuel because it is extremely sensitive about nuclear weapons proliferation. The United States fears that new technologies may be developed in the future to allow the separation of weapons-grade plutonium from the pyroprocessed materials. That is why Washington doesn’t want to negotiate on the pyroprocessing method.

There are some strategies that could help Korea succeed in the negotiations. First, Korea must reaffirm to the United States its commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. From the 1991 Korean Peninsula denuclearization declaration to the hosting of the 2012 nuclear summit, Korea has led nonproliferation efforts in the international community.

Second, Korea must convey to the United States its desire to export nuclear energy technology, to gain Washington’s trust that Seoul is a true partner and that Korea’s nuclear industry will benefit the U.S. economy.

Third, Korea must conduct joint research with the United States in pyroprocessing technology to gain trust for the method, rather than trying to negotiate the issue at the start of the talks. During negotiations, Korea must remember that the nuclear energy industry is the new source of the nation’s future growth.

*The writer is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Hanyang University.

By Kim Kyung-min
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