U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens said in a recent interview that the reprocessing of spent fuel rods from South Korean nuclear reactors was a "pending issue" in upcoming talks to revise the Korea-U.S. Atomic Energy Agreement and promised to consider Seoul's aspirations to reprocess nuclear fuel as well as international concerns over proliferation. Seoul and Washington are in talks to revise the agreement, which was signed in 1973 and expires in March 2014.
The main sticking point in the talks is whether to let South Korea reprocess spent fuel rods. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher last year said Washington sees no need to revise the Soul-Washington nuclear cooperation agreement to allow the South reprocess nuclear fuel, and the U.S. Senate voiced strong suspicion over the country's intentions. The latest comments by Stephens suggests that Washington may change its stance.
Operating 20 nuclear power plants, South Korea ranks among the world's top five when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. Each year, South Korea uses 4,000 tons of uranium as energy, which leads to around 700 tons of spent fuel rods. Some 10,000 tons of spent rods from nuclear plants in Gori, Wolseong, Yeonggwang and Uljin have been stored in temporary water tanks, and there will be no room left in by 2016. When reprocessed, 94 percent of spent fuel rods can be reused, while the amount of waste materials decreases to 1/10 of the original amount. If South Korea gains the ability to reprocess its own spent rods, it will be able to lower the amount of radioactive waste it has to store and boost the efficiency of its nuclear power facilities.
But the U.S. has blocked South Korea's ability to do so out of fear that Seoul could use the plutonium to produce nuclear weapons. The suspicions stem from South Korea's secret attempt back in the 1970s to develop its own nuclear bomb, plus growing calls here to achieve "nuclear self-sufficiency" in the face of the North Korean threat.
But after 15 years of tortuous talks to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program and watching the Stalinist country grow poorer and more isolated from the international community due to its nuclear ambitions, there is very little chance that South Korea would want to walk down that path. Yet Korea's alliance with the U.S. could come under strain if Washington stubbornly insists on blocking the South from reprocessing. The Korea-U.S. Atomic Energy Agreement must be revised so that the South has the ability to reprocess spent fuel rods for peaceful purposes.