Another nuclear issue to keep Seoul, D.C. busy

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Another nuclear issue to keep Seoul, D.C. busy

Aside from North Korea’s expanding nuclear capability, there’s another nuclear issue starting to heat up on the peninsula: Seoul and Washington have started negotiations on a decades-old agreement that limits South Korea’s nuclear capabilities and its energy industry.

According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official yesterday, the two countries met in Washington on Oct. 25 to begin negotiations on revising a 1974 nuclear accord that is set to expire in March 2014. The next negotiation will be held in February or March, the official said, with successive meetings on a quarterly basis. The deadline the South Korean government has set for revisions is late 2012 or early 2013.

The government has not been explicit about the changes it wants because of fear of hampering the negotiations. But according to analysts, it wants a fairer accord that reflects the changes in South Korea and in the world since the 1970s.

“During the [October] meeting, we expressed gratitude for the U.S.’s support so far, and stressed that cooperating with [South] Korea, which is now a nuclear powerhouse, will benefit both countries commercially and industrially,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The U.S. also shared our view.”

Two restrictions the U.S. forced on South Korea during the height of the Cold War have emerged as the main talking points for revisions. The accord keeps South Korea from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Enriched uranium is fuel for nuclear power plants, but because highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons, the U.S. has only allowed South Korea to use low-enriched uranium that it provides.

Reprocessing spent uranium is prohibited because it can lead to the production of plutonium, also used to make nuclear bombs.

South Korea says revising the accord will facilitate cooperation with the U.S. for utilization of nuclear energy, a major industry given the projected exponential rise of its need around the world.

It also believes a new accord could help make nuclear energy another pillar in bilateral economic cooperation, along with the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

But the government is concerned the U.S. may argue that the “safety measures” should stay, particular at a time when nuclear security in North Korea and Iran are such hot-button issues. North Korea revealed a new uranium enrichment facility last month, escalating its nuclear ability and its ability to threaten the North Asian region.

“The nuclear issues of North Korea and Iran may have an impact on the negotiations,” said another Foreign Ministry official. He said concern over North Korea will spur proliferation fundamentalists to object to loosening the Seoul-Washington nuclear accord.

But, the official said, South Korea’s nuclear issue should be separated from North Korea’s because the South’s industry is for peaceful generation of electricity.

The U.S. classifies countries it cooperates with on nuclear issues into four categories with different levels of restrictions: full-fledged partnerships, strategic partnerships, vested interest partnerships and restricted partnerships. Japan, a full-fledged partner, has been allowed to enrich and reprocess uranium since a revision of the Japan-U.S. nuclear cooperation accord in 1988. India, a strategic partner, is given permission to reprocess fuel, though it is not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. South Korea, however, falls into the restricted partnership category.

“Given the long-standing alliance between the two countries and nuclear cooperation so far, South Korea should not be ‘one of those,’” said the official. “I think there was a consensus reached on that point when we gathered in Washington in October.”

The South Korean side also argues that the accord is hampering its nuclear power-plant export industry. Starting with the $40 billion deal with the U.A.E. last year, South Korea’s goal is to seize 20 percent of the global nuclear power plant market by 2030.

That goal may be impeded by the limits of the nuclear accord. South Korea is only allowed to export nuclear power plants to countries that accept the ban on enriching uranium and recycling spent nuclear fuel.

That could make South Korea a less appealing vendor than advanced nuclear powerhouses such as France or Japan, which can reprocess nuclear fuel.

The growing difficulty of disposing spent nuclear fuel is another problem. According to the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corp., the operator of South Korea’s nuclear power plants, storage space for spent fuel is nearing full capacity. It estimates that the oldest nuclear plant, Gori-1, which went into operation in 1978, will run out of storage space by 2016.

Almost 90 percent of spent nuclear fuel is recyclable, scientists say.

In addition the price of uranium is currently more than $45 per pound and is expected to double or more in 10 years.

“Without being allowed to recycle spent fuel, the cost of importing uranium will increase substantially,” said Moon Joo-hyun, energy professor at Dongguk University. South Korea wants nuclear energy to be its main energy source in the future, aiming for at least 50 percent of electricity generation from nuclear energy by 2030.

Local analysts say the U.S. has several reasons not to loosen the terms of the accord. Washington is concerned that allowing South Korea to reprocess spent fuel could weaken its leverage in North Korean nuclear disarmament talks, analysts say. It also fears that such concession would set a precedent for other nuclear developing nations.

The U.S. also has lingering doubts over whether South Korea’s nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, analysts say.

The Park Chung Hee military regime of the 1970s was suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons to deter North Korea. Under pressure from Washington, the weapons program was disbanded by President Chun Doo Hwan in the early 1980s.

“The government should remind the U.S. that South Korea is a trustworthy partner by evoking its efforts to comply with international moves for the peaceful use of nuclear technology,” said Kim Kyung-min, professor at Hanyang University.

Some analysts say that for South Korea to get the revisions it wants, it needs to take a more subtle approach, without forgetting to show gratitude for the U.S.’s contributions. The accord, unfair as it may seem today, has laid the groundwork for the development of South Korea’s nuclear industry, they say. “Sticking to the word ‘unfair’ could only alienate the long-standing cooperative relationship with the U.S. in the nuclear sector, in which [South] Korea benefited a lot,” said Park Gun-cheol, a nuclear engineering professor at Seoul National University.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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