U.S. Silent on Korean Request to Reprocess Nuke Fuel

      July 23, 2012 12:02

      Five months since Korea officially asked the U.S. for permission to reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel rods there has still been no response from Washington.

      Korea in February sent a sealed envelope to Robert Einhorn, the U.S. State Department's special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, saying Seoul wants to start talks on revising a bilateral nuclear energy pact that expires in 2014.

      Seoul and Washington signed the pact in 1974 detailing the extent of the nuclear technology Korea can use for civilian purposes.

      The bilateral pact has helped Korea develop nuclear power technology but also saddled it with a needless restriction on reprocessing its own nuclear fuel rods. Seoul believes it should have the right to reprocess them and also wants to enrich uranium for power generation.

      Washington is concerned that Korea could obtain materials to produce nuclear weapons if it is allowed to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel rods, which would set a bad precedent in U.S. efforts to stem proliferation. This is why the U.S. has only agreed to conduct joint research with Korea on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods through a process known as pyroprocessing, which does not produce weapons-grade plutonium.

      Korea has 22 nuclear power plants, making it the world's fifth largest in terms of nuclear energy facilities. The country relies on nuclear power to produce 35 percent of total energy demand.

      The main reason it wants to reprocess the massive amount of spent nuclear fuel rods is that finding space to store the toxic byproduct is becoming a headache.

      Spent nuclear fuel is handled in three stages: temporary storage, intermediate storage and permanent disposal. Under the current nuclear energy pact, Korea stores all its spent nuclear fuel in temporary storage facilities at power plants. In the case of the nuclear power plant at Gori in the southeast, the facility is forecast to reach saturation point in 2016.

      Another problem is that since Korea is prohibited from enriching uranium, it has to spend W900 billion (US$1=W1,141) every year to purchase around 4.500 tons of yellow cake from abroad and pays other countries to enrich uranium. Yellow cake is the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment.

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