South Korean Reprocessing: An Unnecessary Threat to the Nonproliferation Regime
Reprocessing creates huge flows and stockpiles of separated plutonium.
Many Chinese and South Korean security analysts are deeply suspicious of
The United States consented to Japan’s reprocessing program during the Carter administration only after the issue had escalated to the point where Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was stating publicly that the right to reprocess was “a life or death issue for Japan.” The trauma of the 1973 Arab oil embargo was still a fresh memory, and it is likely that the prime minister had been convinced by
Today the rhetoric around reprocessing is escalating in
The 1974 U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement requires U.S. consent if “any irradiated fuel elements containing fuel material received from the United States of America [are to be] altered in form or content.” As a matter of policy, South Korea requests that the United States agree to such activities even if U.S.-origin material is not involved. The cooperation agreement will expire in 2014, however, and South Korea wants to negotiate a new agreement that will give it the same programmatic permission that the United States has given the European Union, Japan, Switzerland, and, with certain conditions, India.
Implementation of pyroprocessing in
Concerns that South Korea’s interest in reprocessing could destabilize the nonproliferation regime should stimulate China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—the countries that, along with North Korea, are the participants in the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program—to discuss alternatives to a proliferation of national reprocessing plants. The U.S. government must also resist demands from some congressional Republicans that spent fuel reprocessing be part of any U.S. program to deal with climate change. The fact that the United States has not reprocessed its own spent power-reactor fuel since 1972 has been critical to its ability to persuade non-nuclear-weapon states that they do not need to reprocess either. When Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reversed the position of previous administrations and decided to forgo reprocessing at home and discourage it abroad, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Taiwan had pilot reprocessing plants. Argentina was building a plant, and France and Germany were contracting to sell reprocessing plants to South Korea and Brazil, respectively. Many of these plans were originally launched out of interest in acquiring at least a nuclear weapons option.
The administration of George W. Bush proposed that the
The proliferation problems that reprocessing creates are a powerful argument against it. That argument is strengthened by the failure of reprocessing to solve the spent fuel problem. The remainder of this article explains why KAERI’s reprocessing proposal, like
Spent Fuel Storage Problem
South Korea has nuclear power reactors at four sites with a combined generating capacity of about 18 gigawatts-electric (GWe) and more reactors with a total additional 10 GWe under construction. There are plans to build enough generating capacity for an additional 15 GWe by 2030. That would bring total South Korean nuclear generating capacity to 43 GWe, almost equal to Japan’s nuclear generating capacity today.
South Korea’s nuclear utility, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP), has stated that the spent fuel pools at some of its power reactors will be full in 2016. In theory, the older spent fuel in the pools could be shifted to the pools of newer reactors being built on some of the same sites or to dry-cask storage, as is standard practice at U.S. nuclear power plants. In practice, local communities in
In January 2009, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy established the Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corporation and launched a public consensus process to formulate a national policy on spent fuel management. Six months later, however, the Blue House (South Korea’s equivalent of the U.S. White House) halted the process and then announced that a legal framework was required and that expert opinion would have to be solicited first.
The political issues facing
Japan’s reprocessing program continues, however, and Japan has even built its own hugely costly reprocessing plant because the facility provides an interim storage destination for both Japan’s spent fuel and the reprocessing waste that is being shipped back from France and the United Kingdom.
Commercial operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which has a design capacity to reprocess 800 tons of spent fuel annually, has been delayed for more than eight years. The plant’s on-site storage capacity for about 3,000 tons of spent fuel is almost full. In any case, the plant does not have the capacity to reprocess spent fuel at the same rate it is discharged from the country’s power reactors. As a result, Japanese utilities are still confronted with the challenge of building additional storage capacity.
KAERI’s Reprocessing Proposal
KAERI, with support from the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, urges that the spent fuel from the country’s pressurized water reactors (PWRs) be reprocessed using pyroprocessing technology. That technology electrochemically separates the elements in the fuel after they have been dissolved in molten salt instead of in acid, as is done in standard PUREX reprocessing. The plutonium and other transuranic elements recovered from PWR fuel then would be recycled repeatedly in the fuel of liquid-sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors until they were completely fissioned except for process losses. The liquid-sodium-cooled reactors would be basically the same plutonium breeder reactors on which the industrialized countries have spent about $100 billion in research and development (R&D) and (mostly failed) demonstration projects, but with their cores reconfigured so that they would be net consumers rather than producers of plutonium.
KAERI has had a modest R&D program on spent fuel reprocessing ever since the early 1970s, when South Korea briefly pursued nuclear weapons after President Richard Nixon proposed that U.S. allies in Asia take primary responsibility for their own defense. Since 1997, KAERI has been doing R&D related to pyroprocessing. About 10 percent of KAERI’s 1,100 employees work on this effort. This small group of government-funded researchers has had an outsized impact on South Korean spent fuel management policy. Like their counterparts at the Argonne and
KAERI has not yet carried out any processing of irradiated fuel in its pyroprocessing R&D program but has requested
Although plutonium recovered from LWR fuel is not of weapons grade, it is weapons usable. A single 1-GWe pressurized-water nuclear power plant discharges about 200 kilograms of plutonium in its spent fuel annually—enough, if separated, for 25 Nagasaki-type nuclear bombs. Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2001 energy task force declared pyroprocessing more “proliferation resistant” than conventional reprocessing. Pyroprocessing was one focus of the Bush administration’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which included collaborative research on pyroprocessing between KAERI and the Department of Energy’s nuclear energy laboratories. For some time, Bush administration officials who were sympathetic to
The primary basis for the claim that pyroprocessing is proliferation resistant is that, unlike traditional PUREX reprocessing, it does not produce pure plutonium. However, like PUREX, pyroprocessing separates plutonium from the fission products that account for most of the gamma radiation field around spent fuel. As a result, the radiation field around the transuranic mix produced by pyroprocessing would be reduced to about 0.1 percent of that around the spent fuel and to less than 1 percent of the International Atomic Energy Agency's self-protection standard. Therefore, it would be possible to separate plutonium from the mix without the remote operations behind heavy shielding required for recovering plutonium from spent fuel. Given the confusion that was generated during the Bush administration, it is useful that the implications of this fact were recently stated clearly in a report by an Energy Department multilaboratory task force: “The assessment focuses on determining whether three alternative reprocessing technologies—COEX, UREX+, and pyroprocessing—provide nonproliferation advantages relative to the PUREX technology because they do not produce separated plutonium. [We] found only a modest improvement in reducing proliferation risk over existing PUREX technologies and these modest improvements apply primarily for non-state actors.”
Pyroprocessing thus is slightly more proliferation resistant than traditional PUREX reprocessing but much less proliferation resistant than not reprocessing at all.
Major Pyroprocessing Far Off
KHNP currently projects that the spent fuel storage space at its Kori, Wolsong, Ulchin, and Yonggwang sites will be full in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021, respectively—only six to 11 years hence. KAERI will still be early in its pyroprocessing R&D program at that time. It has proposed completion of:
1. An engineering-scale facility with the capacity to reprocess 10 tons of PWR spent fuel per year by 2016. By that time, South Korean PWRs will be discharging more than 400 tons of spent fuel per year.
2. A prototype facility with the capacity to reprocess 100 tons of spent fuel per year by 2025. By 2030, South Korean PWRs are expected to be discharging about 800 tons of spent fuel per year.
KAERI does not project a date for having an operational pyroprocessing facility capable of dealing with South Korean spent PWR fuel at a rate at which it is being produced, but it proposes building only one 0.6 GWe demonstration fast-neutron reactor before 2050. In order to fission the transuranics discharged annually in the spent fuel of 40 GWe of PWRs—the nuclear generation capacity South Korea is projecting it will have in 2030—it would have to deploy 16-30 GWe of fast-reactor capacity. Thus, before 2050, KAERI’s program would address only a small fraction of KHNP’s spent fuel production. Whatever the long-term solution for South Korean spent fuel, it will need more interim storage.
The Problem of Excess Plutonium
In the meantime, if KAERI’s prototype pyroprocessing facility and fast-neutron reactor were built and operated at full capacity,
Thus, South Korea would be going down the same track as France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, where huge stockpiles of excess separated plutonium were produced with reprocessing plants that were originally proposed in the 1970s on the basis of expectations that, by 2000, the world would be building more than 100 GWe of fast-neutron reactor capacity each year.
Pending the construction of a geological repository,
In Japan, the extra cost of PUREX reprocessing has been estimated by Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission as $2,400 per kilogram. A U.S. national laboratory comparison has found that the cost of pyroprocessing could be considerably higher than for PUREX reprocessing. By comparison, the cost of centralized interim dry-cask storage for LWR spent fuel is very inexpensive—only about $100 per kilogram.
Disposal Without Reprocessing
KAERI argues that
This analysis is irrelevant to the Swedish type of geological repository being considered by KAERI, in which spent fuel would be buried in copper canisters embedded in clay in water-saturated granite. For KAERI’s design, the capacity limit would be determined by the requirement that the clay around the canister not dry out and crack. Therefore, the amount of spent fuel that can be emplaced in a cask is determined by the current heat output of the spent fuel, not its output over millennia.
KAERI’s analyses assume that spent PWR fuel would be emplaced in a repository 40 years after discharge from the reactor. At that time, the transuranics account for slightly less than one-half of the radioactive heat generation from spent fuel. Eliminating them would increase the capacity of a repository approximately by a factor of two. The same result could be accomplished, however, by waiting until the spent fuel is 100 years old before emplacing it in the repository. By then, the 30-year-half-life fission products that dominate the fission-product heat output at 40 years would have largely decayed away.
Because of political constraints imposed by local governments on the amount of spent fuel that can be stored at its reactor sites,
More importantly from an international security perspective, pyroprocessing would make plutonium much more accessible, exacerbating the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. If reprocessing does not facilitate radioactive waste management and is costly and proliferative, it would be far better for the number of countries that are reprocessing to continue to decline rather than to add a second non-nuclear-weapon state to their number.
Aomori Prefecture, which hosts Japan’s reprocessing plant, received 190 billion yen ($1.7 billion) in incentive payments by 2004 before the plant was completed and has been promised 24,000 yen ($216) for every kilogram of spent fuel shipped to the plant. That will total another 760 billion yen ($7 billion) for the projected 32,000 tons of spent fuel that are to be reprocessed during the lifetime of the plant. The total subsidy will be 30 times the $300 million incentive that was part of the package that helped persuade the local governments around
Given the inherently low danger from stored spent fuel that has cooled for about two decades in comparison with that from the fuel in an operating nuclear power plant or freshly discharged fuel in at-reactor spent-fuel cooling pools, it is quite possible that, if the compensation were comparable to what Aomori Prefecture is receiving for hosting the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, a jurisdiction already hosting a nuclear power plant might be willing to host an interim spent fuel storage site as well. The cost would still be small in comparison to the estimated 11 trillion yen ($100 billion) cost of building, operating, and decommissioning the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. In fact, in Sweden and Finland, local jurisdictions that already host nuclear power plants have volunteered to host deep-underground spent-fuel repositories.
In the meantime, if R&D on fast-neutron reactors is to continue, it should be done on a multinational basis. Because of the high cost, proliferation concerns, and uncertainty whether these reactors will be cost effective, it does not make sense to develop fast-neutron reactors in national programs. The multinational alternative would be to emulate the fusion energy community where the countries with major fusion energy programs have decided to build a single experimental reactor jointly. Indeed, because of the decline in fission R&D funds, 13 countries established the Generation IV International Forum in 2001 to coordinate their R&D on advanced fission reactors. More than half expressed interest in joint work on fast-neutron reactors:
These countries could use
Far better would be to restrict the focus of collaborative R&D to reactor types that do not require reprocessing. Collaboration on nuclear energy among
What is needed especially is multinational cooperation in the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle that are required by current-generation reactors operating on a once-through fuel cycle, namely uranium enrichment and spent fuel repositories.
Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at
1. In August 2009, the start of full operations of
2. New Nuclear Policy-Planning
3. Transuranic elements have atomic numbers higher than uranium. They are created in nuclear reactors by neutron capture on uranium followed by radioactive decays in which a neutron is transformed into a proton. Uranium has 92 protons, neptunium has 93, plutonium as 94, americium has 95, and curium 96.
7. Lee Jong-Heon, “South Koreans Call for Nuclear Sovereignty,” United Press International, June 15, 2009; Jungmin Kang, “The North Korean Nuclear Test:
10. Under most of its agreements, the
14. “Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the
15. “Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks,” September 19, 2005, www.state.gov/p/eap/regional/c15455.htm. The breakdown of that agreement was followed by
16. Glenn Pearston, “Nuclear Reprocessing Amendment Defeated in Close Vote,” Nuclear Safety, May 21, 2009, www.nuclearsafety.org/index.php/component/content/article/15-headlines/63-nuclear-reprocessing-amendment-defeated-in-close-vote.
17. The Eurochemic pilot reprocessing plant in
20. Frank von Hippel, “Why Reprocessing Persists in Some Countries and Not in Others: The Costs and Benefits of Reprocessing,” April 9, 2009, www.npec-web.org/Essays/vonhippel%20-%20TheCostsandBenefits.pdf.
21. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company (KHNP), “Overview,” n.d., www.khnp.co.kr/en/030100.
22. National Energy Committee, Prime Minister’s Office,
29. Tadahiro Katsuta and Tatsujiro Suzuki, “
30. Spent fuel is ordinarily measured by the original tonnage (metric) of uranium that the fresh fuel contained. This weight does not include the weight of the oxygen in the uranium oxide or the fuel’s zirconium alloy cladding.
33. Twenty years after discharge, the transuranic mix in LWR spent fuel with a cumulative fission-energy release of 53 megawatt-days per kilogram of uranium (MWt-days/kgU) is plutonium, 82.4 percent; americium, 10.7 percent; neptunium, 6.6 percent; and curium, 0.4 percent. Jungmin Kang and Frank von Hippel, “Limited Proliferation-Resistance Benefits From Recycling Unseparated Transuranics and Lanthanides From Light-Water Reactor Spent Fuel,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 13 (2005), p. 169, table 1.
34. Fifty billion dollars reported by the OECD countries to the International Energy Agency (IEA) as spent between 1974 and 2007; tens of billions of dollars before 1974, when the spending rate was $3 billion per year; at least $12 billion for the Superphénix reactor not included in France’s report to the IEA; an estimated $12 billion spent by Russia; and an unknown amount spent by India. IPFM, “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status.”
37. In fiscal year 2007, the budget of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology for total nuclear energy R&D—virtually all of which went to the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI)—was approximately $170 million ($1 equaled 1,242 Korean won on September 1, 2009), of which approximately $22 million went for research on the nuclear fuel cycle. Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, “Atomic Energy White Paper,” December 2008 (in Korean).
38. Hansoo Lee, “The Korean Strategy in Nuclear Fuel Cycle” (presentation at KAERI,
44. “[I]ts proliferation resistance has been internationally recognized due to the impossibility to recover plutonium.” KAERI, “Pyroprocess Technology,” www.kaeri.re.kr/english/sub/sub04_03.jsp.
46. Robert Bari et al., “Proliferation Risk Reduction Study of Alternative Spent Fuel Processing Technologies,” BNL-90264-2009-CP, 2009, abstract. I would like to thank Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth for bringing this report to my attention.
48. KAERI, “Fuel Cycle Process Division, Future Research Plans,” http://ehome.kaeri.re.kr/snsd.
49. KAERI, “Fast Reactor Technology Development Group, R/D Activities,” www.kaeri.re.kr/english/sub/sub01_04_02_01_01.jsp.
50. A PWR with a one-gigawatt electrical generating capacity (1-GWe) discharges about 0.24 tons of transuranics in its spent fuel annually. A 1-GWe fast-neutron reactor with a thermal-to-electric power conversion efficiency of 40 percent would have a thermal power of 2.5 GWt. (A gigawatt is 1 billion watts. GWe indicates that the power is electric; GWt indicates that the power is thermal.) If operated at a capacity factor of 0.9, it would generate about 800 GWt-days of fission heat annually, which would require the fissioning of about 0.8 tons of heavy metals, i.e., transuranics and uranium per year. However, if the transuranics were mixed with uranium, as proposed for safety reasons, some of the uranium would be fissioned directly and some would be converted into transuranics. The net destruction rate of transuranics would therefore be 0.8(1-CR), where CR is the reactor conversion ratio. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study quotes a minimum safe conversion rate for a General Electric fast-reactor design of 0.6. NAS, “Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separations and Transmutation,” 1996, pp. 205-206. Fast-neutron reactor advocates at
54. Japan Atomic Energy Commission, “Interim Report Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 12, 2004. For an English translation of the key conclusions, see www.cnic.jp/english/topics/policy/chokei/longterminterim.html. Quoted costs assume one yen equals $0.01.
55. D. E. Shropshire et al., “Advanced Fuel Cycle Cost Basis,” INL/EXT-07-12107, 2007, tables F1-4 and F2-3. The largest scale on which pyroprocessing has been conducted thus far is a rate of about 0.4 tons of heavy metal per year in the treatment of 0.7 tons of driver fuel and 2.5 tons of blanket uranium of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in Idaho. In 2006 the total project cost was estimated at $363 million, or about $15,000 per kilogram. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Preferred Disposition Plan for Sodium-Bonded Spent Nuclear Fuel,” 2006, www.ne.doe.gov/pdfFiles/DisPlanForSodBondedSNFMarch2006.pdf.
56. Boston Consulting Group, “Economic Assessment of Used Nuclear Fuel Management in the
62. The incentives provided to the region for accepting the low-level-waste site also included the transfer of the headquarters of KHNP to Gyeongju (population 280,000), the nearest city to Wolsong. See Ji Bum Chung et al., “Competition, Economic Benefits, Trust, and Risk Perception in Siting a Potentially Hazardous Facility,” Landscape and Urban Planning, Vol. 91 (2009), p. 8.
64. See www.gen-4.org.
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