The Obama administration appears likely to make a decision that could complicate potential South Korean pursuit of a controversial spent fuel treatment process known as pyroprocessing, according to comments by current and former U.S. officials.
They say the administration probably will classify pyroprocessing as reprocessing, a decision that could place certain restrictions on South Korea's development of the process.
Pyroprocessing differs from PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) reprocessing, which has been used in nuclear energy and weapons programs around the world, because the plutonium separated from spent fuel by pyroprocessing remains mixed with other elements. Advocates of pyroprocessing say the difference makes the process significantly less proliferation-prone than PUREX and that pyroprocessing therefore should not be considered reprocessing. Many nonproliferation advocates say the differences are not very significant from a nonproliferation standpoint.
Questions about pyroprocessing have gained prominence as South Korea and the United States renegotiate their agreement for civil nuclear cooperation, which expires in 2014. Under the agreement, the United States can restrict South Korean research in areas such as reprocessing.
The U.S. government has been divided on whether pyroprocessing is reprocessing. In a rare public statement on the issue in May 2008 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Carter "Buzz" Savage, director of fuel cycle research and development in the Department of Energy, said pyroprocessing "obviously" is reprocessing if one carries out "the full flow sheet," the sequence of activities followed in the process.
In an interview last month, Savage said the Obama administration was still in the process of developing a broader policy statement that would encompass that issue. But he referred back to his Carnegie statement and suggested that the new policy was likely to be consistent with that. As he had in his Carnegie remarks, he emphasized that the pyroprocessing issue was only one element of South Korean-U.S. cooperation.
Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University professor who served as a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration, said in a June 15 e-mail that he believes the Obama administration has defined pyroprocessing as reprocessing. Von Hippel is a leading advocate of the view that pyroprocessing is reprocessing.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking member, appeared to be seeking information on that point when he posed a written question to Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), as part of her confirmation process to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security (see page 37). Lugar asked if an agreement that "allowed any form of reprocessing" to take place in South Korea would violate the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. One provision in the declaration states that North Korea and South Korea "shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities."
Tauscher replied, "I believe that the existence of a reprocessing plant in [South Korea] would be inconsistent with the commitments made in the 1992 joint declaration." She did not repeat Lugar's "any form of reprocessing" formulation.
Although Tauscher was not an administration official when she provided the answer, such responses generally can be assumed to reflect an administration's position.
The Department of State did not respond to requests for elaboration on Tauscher's answer.