U.S. and South Korea Reach Technology Pact

Peter Crail

On Aug. 12, the United States and South Korea agreed to cooperate on the development of “Generation IV” nuclear reactors and new reprocessing technologies aimed at supporting worldwide growth in the use of nuclear energy. The United States is also working closely with France, Japan, South Africa, and the United Kingdom on research and development in Generation IV technologies.

The agreement was reached between South Korean Minister of Science Kim Woo-sik and U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and is in line with the U.S.-initiated Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). That plan, unveiled by the Department of Energy in February 2006, envisions the use of fast-reactor technologies to reduce the amount of nuclear waste and of reprocessing facilities to recycle spent fuel for reuse in nuclear reactors. The specific designs subject to the U.S.-South Korean agreement involve a sodium-cooled fast reactor with improved safety features and the potential to use a wider range of fuel sources as well as a pyro-processing facilities that would limit the purity of separated plutonium.

GNEP’s approach, however, has come under criticism for its reliance on reprocessing and the substantial amounts of plutonium that would be separated in the process, which remains a proliferation risk for its potential use in nuclear weapons. South Korea’s involvement in the development of such technologies may also be controversial given the IAEA’s recent scrutiny into South Korean safeguards violations. In 2004, South Korea admitted to conducting undeclared experiments with uranium enrichment in 2000 and to working on plutonium separation and production of uranium metal during the 1980s, causing some concerns regarding the control and oversight of the country’s nuclear faculties and its commitment to transparency and the peaceful development of nuclear technology.