South Korea pushes to recycle nuclear power plant fuel
As a growing nuclear power plant builder and exporter, South Korea wants to reprocess nuclear fuel. That's counter to a US deal.
Uljin, South Korea
Through thick glass windows beneath 20 feet of water lurk canisters containing spent nuclear fuel rods, stored after having powered one of the four reactors at this nuclear energy site on South Korea's east coast, 100 miles southeast of Seoul.Skip to next paragraph
Why It Matters
Reprocessing spent fuel from reactors can produce bomb-grade plutonium – hence the ban. South Korea says it must 'recycle' waste into more fuel, but some doubt its denial of wanting a weapon to deter nuclear North Korea. A new way to reprocess fuel may quell the controversy.
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"Currently, we have space for spent fuel rods until 2016," says Park Chan-sung, an official at the site, the newest of four nuclear power plant complexes with 20 reactors operating under the aegis of the state-owned Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. "Plans for after 2016 are under discussion."
The issue of what to do with the fuel rods is reaching critical mass. South Korea is a rising manufacturer of nuclear reactors and exporter of nuclear power plants.
Now, it wants to reprocess rather than store its spent fuel rods – despite fears of potential proliferation and questions about a ban on reprocessing imposed by its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. The debate is critical not only for South Korea's nuclear energy program but also for efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, talks about "denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, suggesting North Korea will persist in its program as long as South Korea and the US also have nuclear capabilities.
South Korean scientists as well as leaders say the South needs the independence to recycle spent fuel rods. But some observers say that could lead to the South producing plutonium for warheads. South Koreans disavow any ambition other than to extract more uranium to fuel reactors. It would then bury the residue.
Secret talks underway
Secret talks are under way, meanwhile, on revising the nuclear cooperation agreement.
"Both our countries support the global growth of the peaceful use of nuclear energy," US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens told an influential Korean audience in mid-March. "We will continue our cooperation to guarantee the safety and proliferation-resistance of nuclear energy."
One US concern is how much faith to place in denials of nuclear ambitions while North Korea refuses to get rid of its weapons program. The US insisted on banning reprocessing in 1972 to frustrate the dream of South Korea's long-ruling Park Chung-hee that his country would become a nuclear power.
That agreement expires in 2014, but it's far from clear if the US and South Korea can resolve their disagreement by then. Pressure could mount in the South for a deterrent while the North produces ever more fissile material, already estimated at enough for six to a dozen warheads, and conducts more underground tests as it did last May and in 2006.