U.S. envoy throws cold water on enrichment

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U.S. envoy throws cold water on enrichment

Gary Samore, special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, said Monday that Korea does not need to have its own ability to enrich uranium, reflecting Washington’s longtime stance, which Seoul is hoping to change.

“Korea can continue to buy enrichment services from the U.S. and France and in other international markets rather than having its own uranium-enrichment technology,” Samore was quoted by Yonhap as saying after attending a forum organized by the Korean Embassy in Washington.

The forum was held to review the results of the Nuclear Security Summit that Korea hosted in March and to prepare for the next summit in the Netherlands in 2014.

Samore is also President Obama’s top aide for nonproliferation.

“There is no danger that Korean industries will not be able to get access to low-enriched uranium,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about any limit Korea will have.”

Korea and the U.S. have been in talks since late 2010 to rewrite its nuclear agreement, and Korea wants to be able to reprocess nuclear fuel. The agreement expires in 2014.

The issue of nuclear reprocessing is controversial as the South is dependent on nuclear energy and is running out of storage space for spent fuel. The United States has restricted the practice because the plutonium and the uranium that result from nuclear reprocessing can be used to build atomic bombs.

Low-enriched uranium generates power for Korea’s 22 reactors.

Currently, Korea imports 100 percent of its uranium, 30 percent from the U.S. and the rest from Europe.

Due to the reprocessing restrictions, the South has annually spent 600 billion won ($526 million) on outsourcing enrichment of U.S.- or French-supplied uranium fuels overseas.

The talks on the nuclear treaty will take a long time, according to Korean and American officials.

“I’m not sure whether negotiations between Seoul and Washington will end within this year,” Samore said, noting the upcoming presidential elections in both countries later this year. “I think there will be a solution but I can’t predict exactly when that solution will happen.”

South Korea is ranked as one of the world’s top five countries in terms of capacity to develop nuclear energy, with 20 reactors in operation, six under construction and plans to increase its nuclear capacity to 38 reactors by 2030.

These reactors will produce more than 110,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel by 2100.

The original version of the nuclear agreement was signed on Feb. 3, 1956, and revised in 1958 and 1965.

The current version is titled “The Agreement for Cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Civil Use of Atomic Energy.”

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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