Nuclear deal a pact between ‘equals:’ Einhorn

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Nuclear deal a pact between ‘equals:’ Einhorn

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Robert Einhorn

U.S. President Barack Obama’s former top nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn called a newly inked bilateral nuclear cooperation accord between Seoul and Washington - which opens new doors for Seoul toward its goals of enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel - a “win-win” solution within “a partnership of equals.”

“The agreement will help the [Republic of Korea] meet its most pressing near-term needs, while deferring for the time being decisions that could benefit from further study and experimentation,” Einhorn, a Washington-based Brookings Institute’s senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, said in a conference call with Korean reporters on Thursday.

Einhorn, who served as the top U.S. negotiator in nuclear energy talks with Seoul from 2010 to 2013, pinpointed that the most difficult issue during the negotiation process was “whether the United States should grant advance consent for the [Republic of Korea] to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel or enrich U.S.-origin uranium.”

The new civilian nuclear cooperation agreement signed in Seoul on Wednesday does not include the “gold standard” provision, which explicitly prohibits uranium enrichment and reprocessing spent fuel. Rather than an outright ban, as in the previous 42-year-old accord, the new deal gives Korea room to enrich uranium for civil nuclear energy in the future and conduct early-stage experiments on pyroprocessing technology in order to recover uranium in spent nuclear fuel.

During a negotiation process with Washington that spanned over four and a half years to revamp the 1974 bilateral nuclear energy pact, Seoul pushed for advance consent, through which the United States would grant approval for sensitive nuclear activities for the duration of the nuclear cooperation agreement instead of considering each case individually.

Einhorn explained that the new agreement, whose text has yet to be made public, keeps options open.

“The negotiators have adapted a novel solution to this issue: The agreement is not at this stage to grant advanced consent,” he said. “Instead, the two sides would keep the question of advanced consent under joint active review. They will engage in a joint fuel cycle study that will assess the technical and economic feasibility and the nonproliferation implications of pyroprocessing.”

The study, to be completed in 2020, will assess various options for ensuring a reliable supply of enriched uranium to Korea, which Einhorn said includes “the option of uranium enrichment in South Korea.

He also highlighted that the agreement will “provide for advanced consent for South Korea to engage in research and development in the first stage of pyroprocessing.” This includes electro-reduction, a technical process toward extracting uranium.

“There’s now authorization in the agreement to conduct research and development on electro-reduction. It’ll be an important stepping stone on the enrichment side.”

Whether Korea will gain advanced consent for reprocessing spent fuel depends on future enriched fuel needs and its ability to secure reliable supplies of enriched fuels at reasonable costs, he added.

“The decision about advanced consent in the future will depend on a variety of factors, but when that decision is made, it will be based on science, it will be based on joint analysis, it will be a better informed decision than that can be made today.”

He said the new deal will help serve Korea’s top three top-priority nuclear energy goals: addressing the spent fuel storage challenge; ensuring reliable supplies of enriched uranium and promoting Korea’s status as a competitor in the global nuclear energy market.

The veteran negotiator continued, “I don’t recall, in my experience, an agreement with so many details and sophisticated elements as this one.”

Einhorn added that the agreement has “a number of other unique aspects” unseen before in any other similar agreements.

This includes establishing a new mechanism, a high-level bilateral commission that will meet regularly “at a very new level,” between the U.S. deputy secretary of energy and a vice minister from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“What this means is that the two countries will be in regular contact on the most important nuclear energy priorities and challenges they have,” he elaborated. “This will enable our bilateral cooperation to deepen considerably and for the two countries to remain at the forefront of civil nuclear energy throughout the world.”

The agreement also will provide advance consent for Korea to send spent fuel to Europe for reprocessing, he added.

For final approval from Washington, the secretary of state and the secretary of energy must convey their formal recommendations to U.S. President Obama, and a non-proliferation impact statement would need to be prepared by the Department of State.

After Obama signs the agreement, the text will be made public and submitted to Congress for review. It also needs President Park Geun-hye’s approval.

This is “an agreement between partners, not a senior partner and a junior partner, but a partnership of peers, of equals,” he said.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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