A new nuclear cooperation pact
Seoul and Washington revised the bilateral nuclear cooperation pact for the first time since it was established in 1973. Under the pact, Korea can enrich uranium and use spent fuel for research purposes, providing traction to commercial nuclear research and exports. Korea was given the go-ahead for a limited low-enrichment program under the watch of both government supervisors, and trade procedures were simplified to make Korean exports of commercial nuclear technology easier. Although limited to research, Korea will be allowed to recover uranium in spent nuclear fuel for early-stage pyro-processing technology.
But this won’t be enough to handle the country’s spent fuel from nuclear plants that is piling up in a limited number of storage houses. The new agreement lifted the “gold standard” provision, which is a blanket ban on uranium enrichment and reprocessing spent fuel by South Korea. But Korea must gain approval for any research enrichment and reprocessing. Korea remains bound to U.S. supervision on enrichment and the recycling of spent fuel even though the country is the world’s fifth-largest consumer of nuclear power. In essence, the agreement is hardly what the government touts as progressive and reciprocal.
The spent nuclear fuel rods from nuclear reactors become either waste or new fuel upon recycling. At Korean nuclear sites, there is a stockpile of more than 15 million spent nuclear fuel rods and 700 tons of waste annually. By the end of the year, storage at the Gori Nuclear Complex in Busan, will be fully packed and no longer can store more spent fuel rods. The United States has promised to transfer technology to control nuclear waste better, but we are forced to deal with the waste immediately.
Washington cannot make exceptions in its global campaign on nuclear nonproliferation. But Seoul has been too passive. In 1988, the United States had already given Japan full authority to enrich and reprocess nuclear waste even though the country has a record of starting global war. Seoul should have pushed hard by citing other cases while reaffirming that nuclear waste will not be used for any other purposes other than peaceful and commercial application.
When it signed the nuclear cooperation pact with the United States four decades ago, Korea had no nuclear power. But now, we run 23 nuclear reactors, generating one-third of the power for the country. Seven more are under construction and Korea’s nuclear power technology is exported to the Middle East. Despite three nuclear tests by North Korea, Seoul has been faithful to the 1991 denuclearization pact. Washington does not have the right to ban Seoul from recycling spent fuel. The two countries agreed to form a high-level council for nuclear power issues, so Seoul should make the new pact the starting point to fight for our nuclear rights.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 23, Page 34