South Korea should seek "peaceful nuclear sovereignty," Minister of Knowledge Economy Choi Kyung-hwan suggested Wednesday, emancipating itself from tight U.S. limits on what it can and cannot do in the field.
Choi was speaking at a meeting hosted by Grand National Party lawmakers who are close to President Lee Myung-bak at the National Assembly after the United Arab Emirates signed a landmark order for a nuclear power plant with a Korean-led consortium. The minister accompanied Lee on a visit to the UAE to give the deal the final push last week.
"Korea's current know-how of nuclear processes is incomplete, and that should improve in the future," Choi said. He agreed that control of raw materials and reprocessing provisions in the Korea-U.S. Atomic Energy Agreement are "excessive."
The country could assert its sovereignty by reclaiming the right to reprocess spent fuel rods, which is restricted by the bilateral agreement. The other two areas are mining and enrichment of uranium, and making and use of nuclear fuel.
By describing the limits as "excessive," the minister drew attention to the gravity of the problem since the country is not permitted to recycle nuclear waste, even though the W47 trillion (US$1=W1,165) contract with the UAE signals global confidence in South Korea's ability to handle the task.
There were already calls in June to revise the nuclear energy agreement, at the time prompted by North Korea's nuclear arms development, but the government has until now kept out of the issue. The power plant contract appears to have boosted efforts to seek a revision of the agreement, which expires in 2014.
Concluded in the 1970s, the agreement reflects U.S. worries over nuclear arms proliferation in prohibiting Seoul from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, since weapons-grade plutonium is a by-product of reprocessing.
But a government official said the provision makes no sense since Seoul sees the reprocessing purely from an industrial point of view and has no plans for nuclear armament. "We've tried to win recognition for our pure approach to peaceful use of nuclear power over the last 20-odd years and we feel the time has come for the international community to recognize these efforts."
Currently, more than 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from 20 nuclear power plants in Gori, Wolseong, Yeonggwang and Uljin is stored at secure facilities. But they will be full by about 2016, leaving Korea little option but to reprocess it.
Reprocessing would allow the country to recycle 94.4 percent of the waste as an energy source, reducing nuclear waste to a negligible 5.6 percent. "For Korea, the issue of reprocessing is an urgent economic matter," the official said.
The government planned to start renegotiating the agreement with the U.S. this year, but it seems the U.S. is not ready. A government source said U.S. government agencies "are very busy preparing for a nuclear security summit in April at the initiative of U.S. President Barack Obama, and because of this, the U.S. has not even decided who'll lead the U.S. delegation to negotiations" with Seoul.
There are fears that Washington is stalling. But a senior government official said there is no great hurry. "We're supposed to revise the bilateral nuclear energy agreement by 2014, and as long as the two countries are conducting working-level talks, we think we can start full-fledged negotiations in the first half of next year."