The U.S. is unlikely to allow South Korea to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that is piling up in secure storage facilities until a satisfactory solution to the North Korean nuclear problem is found, a report said this week. The matter is a key issue in negotiations between Seoul and Washington on the revision of the Korea-U.S. Atomic Energy Agreement, which expires in 2014.
Fred McGoldrick, a former chief U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, published the report on prospects for Seoul-Washington negotiations about nuclear energy at the request of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy of the Asia Foundation in the U.S. "It is difficult to imagine that the United States would agree to South Korean pyroprocessing until the North Korean nuclear issue reaches a satisfactory resolution," he wrote.
However, "if the North Korean problem were to be satisfactorily resolved, the U.S. might be prepared to agree to some form of pyroprocessing under strict nonproliferation conditions," he added.
Pyroprocessing is a new technology of eletrolyzing spent nuclear fuel rods and extracting uranium and plutonium that can be reused as fuel. It is being developed under South Korea's initiative.
Seoul maintains that pyroprocessing is necessary recycling because there is no chance of the technology being diverted for use in developing nuclear weapons. It does not produce high-purity plutonium immediately usable in nuclear arms.
"Most likely to complicate the negotiation" of a new agreement "is the implementation of a U.S. right to consent to South Korea's reprocessing of used nuclear fuel from its nuclear program," the report said. "The U.S. could agree in principle to consent to pyroprocessing and pyrorecycling of U.S.-obligated nuclear fuel in a facility that South Korea might construct in the future -- provided that it was designed, managed, and operated under mutually acceptable nonproliferation conditions and met agreed safeguards criteria."
It concluded, "The two countries need to resolve this issue in a way that will establish a positive model for reconciling the nuclear fuel-cycle aspirations of an advanced nuclear power such as South Korea with global concerns about the proliferation risks of reprocessing."