Concerns are mounting over Seoul's failure to win permission from Washington to reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel rods. A bilateral pact signed in 1974 details the extent of the nuclear technology Korea can use for civilian purposes and prohibits it from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants.
Every year, the 22 nuclear reactors in Korea produce 700 tons of spent nuclear fuel, all of it stored in temporary storage facilities in the power plants under the current nuclear energy pact. Even if Korea packs the spent fuel rods as tightly as possible, the existing storage facilities will reach saturation in 2024, making it imperative to revise the pact.
Korea ranks No. 5 in the world in terms of nuclear power production with 35 percent of its total electricity output coming from that source. Yet it is the only one among the world's top five that is not allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The U.S. says it cannot allow that given Korea's attempt to develop nuclear weapons in the 1970s.
Japan, the world's third largest nuclear power producer, revised its bilateral energy pact with Washington in 1988 and is allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel despite the fact that it triggered the World War II. India, although not considered a nuclear armed country by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has tested nuclear bombs and challenged the international community's efforts to stem the spread of weapons of mass production. And still it won the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel by revising its bilateral energy pact with Washington in 2007.
Korea is not allowed even to transport its own fissile materials within the country. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has to use fake ingredients to develop so-called pyroprocessing technology, which does not produce weapons-grade plutonium, and researchers there must travel to the U.S. to conduct research with genuine materials under close scrutiny. Unless these conditions are changed, the country will lag further behind advanced countries in peaceful nuclear technology, and its related industries will lose export competitiveness.
The bilateral energy pact expires in March 2014, when the next administration enters the second year of its five-year term. The pact cannot be extended as is, but if the talks break down, then it would become difficult for Korea to import nuclear fuel under the U.S.-led regulatory system. The next president needs to tackle this issue as soon as he or she steps into office. Instead of focusing on pork-barrel policies to woo voters, the contenders of the ruling Saenuri and opposition Democratic Unity parties should put some serious thought into defending its national interests.