Korea Struggles to Win Nuclear Rights from U.S.

      March 29, 2013 11:48

      The U.S. seems determined that South Korea should permanently relinquish its rights to enrich uranium and reprocess the mass of spent fuel rods from its nuclear power plants. Washington insists on what it considers the "gold standard" of a permanent ban on uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction by governments negotiating new nuclear deals with the U.S.

      Seoul is in talks with the U.S. to revise the bilateral nuclear energy pact, which expires in March 2014, to get permission to produce low-enriched uranium for power generation and reprocess spent fuel rods, which are piling up from its many nuclear power stations. But instead it seems the government will have to scramble to avoid even tougher restrictions.

      Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se's trip to Washington next month is apparently part of efforts to find a breakthrough in the stalled talks. Yun decided to fly to Washington even though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Seoul in the middle of next month.

      When she was running for the presidency in November last year, President Park Geun-hye pledged to have the nuclear accord revised as it is "outdated."

      "A major agenda item on Yun's list is the South Korea-U.S. civil nuclear pact," said one high-ranking diplomatic source in Seoul. "Yun will stress the importance of revising the pact when he meets Kerry and other high-ranking members of the Obama administration."

      The 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.

      "Based on our mutual trust, we should be able to reach a win-win strategy by the May summit" between Park and President Barack Obama, a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "The existing pact expires in March next year, so we need to reach an agreement on the revised deal by June this year and have to get the green light from the U.S. Congress."

      Seoul will try to convince Washington that it only wants to produce low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make nuclear weapons, and that it will wait for the results of joint research on a reprocessing method called pyroprocessing that does not produce weapons-grade plutonium before deciding on the issue of reprocessing.

      But if Seoul fails to revise the deal, the existing pact simply lapses, and that could mean South Korea would face problems obtaining nuclear fuel. The country relies wholly on uranium imports to fuel its nuclear power plants, and 20 to 30 percent come from the U.S.

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