The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said June 3 that its concerns about the peaceful nature of South Korea’s nuclear program had been resolved after concluding an investigation that began four years ago. The announcement came as South Korea is looking to increase nuclear power production and as U.S. and South Korean negotiators are set to discuss a new nuclear cooperation agreement under which Seoul would like U.S. support for proceeding with proliferation-sensitive technology.
The IAEA’s Safeguards Summary for 2007, released at the agency’s June Board of Governors meeting, declared South Korea’s nuclear program to be completely peaceful, with “no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities.”
The investigation was launched in 2004 following Seoul’s disclosure of previously undeclared experiments in which scientists separated and enriched minute amounts of plutonium and uranium. The revelations came after South Korea signed an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the agency, permitting IAEA inspectors to visit undeclared nuclear facilities and possibly uncover the experiments. (See ACT, December 2004. ) At the time, the government maintained that it was unaware that such research had been conducted. Seoul has since cooperated with IAEA investigators.
South Korea started a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, purchasing a heavy-water research reactor and a reprocessing plant. The efforts were discontinued because of pressure from the United States.
With limited natural resources, South Korea has pinned much of its energy future on nuclear power. Its Ministry of Science and Technology projects that, between 2007 and 2011, the country’s nuclear industry will become one of the top five in the world, meeting 60 percent of electricity needs by 2035; nuclear energy currently supplies about 40 percent of South Korea’s electrical power. However, the country must import all nuclear fuel, which it currently obtains from Canada, France, the United States, and other countries.
Seoul would like to employ a procedure called pyroprocessing to ease this dependence on imports and find a means of coping with growing piles of spent nuclear fuel. Pyroprocessing extracts plutonium and other transuranic elements from spent nuclear fuel to create new fuel that can be used in next-generation fast reactors. South Korea and some members of the Bush administration say this technology is more proliferation resistant than traditional spent fuel reprocessing technologies, which yield pure separated plutonium. Plutonium can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors but can also serve as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Critics say that pyroprocessing is not safe enough, arguing that anything short of locking spent fuel in storage poses proliferation risks. (See ACT, April 2008 .)
Under its current nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, which remains in force until 2014, South Korea has been effectively blocked from reprocessing any of its spent fuel without first obtaining permission from the United States. That prohibition was loosely extended from U.S.-supplied fuel to all fuel because early research and development used U.S. fuel exclusively. Moreover, North and South Korea agreed in the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that neither would acquire reprocessing or enrichment capabilities. The North has already violated this agreement, but Seoul has vowed to adhere to it in hopes of encouraging Pyongyang to return to compliance.
Whether or not South Korea can move forward with its pyroprocessing plans may depend on whether the procedure is considered reprocessing, a question that assumed particular salience after South Korea joined the Bush administration’s controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in December 2007. (See ACT, January/February 2008 .)
Previously, administration officials have offered different answers to that question and have noted that U.S.-South Korean research cooperation has only involved some of the initial steps that would be needed in a pyroprocessing program. But at a May 22 discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carter Savage, director for fuel cycle research and development at the U.S. Department of Energy, acknowledged that pyroprocessing would be reprocessing if the South Koreans follow through with all of the necessary procedures.According to the May 5 issue of Platts NuclearFuel, negotiations on a new nuclear cooperation agreement between South Korea and the United States are expected to begin in the coming months, as Seoul hopes to make its case for pyroprocessing before its current cooperation agreement expires.