Pyroprocessing Is Reprocessing: U.S. Official

Daniel Horner

In what appears to be the U.S. government’s strongest public statement to date on the issue, a Department of State official said last month that the U.S. government now views pyroprocessing, a spent fuel treatment process that South Korea is developing, as a form of reprocessing with proliferation risks similar to those of other forms.

In March 29 remarks at a nuclear policy conference in Washington, Richard Stratford, the State Department official who is responsible for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements, said the Department of Energy “states frankly and positively that pyroprocessing is reprocessing. Period. Full stop.” The Energy Department, which is the U.S. government’s main source of technical expertise on nuclear issues, “did not say that five years ago when we started down the road of cooperation on pyroprocessing,” Stratford said. “Then the product was not weapons usable.”

However, he said, electroreduction and electrorefining, the key elements of pyroprocessing, have “moved to the point that the product is dangerous from a proliferation point of view. So, for that reason, pyroprocessing is reprocessing, and that’s part of the problem.”

Previous public statements on pyroprocessing by the Bush and Obama administrations had indicated proliferation concerns about the technology, but had not been as unequivocal as Stratford’s. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

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. South Korean officials have argued that this difference makes pyroprocessing more proliferation resistant than traditional reprocessing.

The current U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement, which is due to expire in 2014, gives the United States a strong say in South Korean reprocessing of U.S.-origin fuel. As part of the negotiations on the successor to that pact, South Korea is hoping to gain a freer hand in activities such as pyroprocessing.

The two countries have agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding to conduct a 10-year joint feasibility study on pyroprocessing and other options for handling spent fuel. The study is to be conducted in parallel with negotiations on other aspects of nuclear cooperation.