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.
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"Does the US want to treat us as a criminal?" asks Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "Our concern is not to build a nuclear bomb, but how to dispose of spent fuel rods. If the US government continues to oppose us, that will hurt our sentiment."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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Reprocessed fuel by any other name...
Koreans try to allay suspicions. "We do not want to use the word 'reprocessing,' " says Choi Jung-bae, director of the nuclear policy division at the Ministry of Science and Technology. "We prefer to say, 'recycling' or 'reused.' "
The difference is more than semantic. "We do not want to produce pure plutonium," says Mr. Choi. "The purpose of recycling is to get only useful elements in spent fuel," including enriched uranium, in a process called pyroprocessing.
At the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in Daejeon, about 80 miles south of Seoul, scientists call pyroprocessing "a long-term solution" for recycling spent fuel rods without producing weapons-grade plutonium. "The point is, pyroprocessing cannot recover plutonium," says Lee Han-soo, director of nuclear fuel cycle process development. "It cannot compare with normal reprocessing."
Pyroprocessing, say engineers, will make maximum use of the spent fuel rods while vastly reducing the need for waste storage space.
Lee Kwang-seok, director for strategy and international studies, says pyroprocessing, first developed in the US, is "more economic, more problematic-resistant, and has more safeguard ability" than reprocessing systems in use in Japan and France.
But pyroprocessing remains in research and development. "We need more than 10 or 20 years," Mr. Lee says, before it is ready commercially.
In the meantime, Korean engineers ask why South Korea is banned from processing spent fuel rods in the style of the Japanese and French, who do not attempt pyroprocessing. Lee questions if "the Japanese and French argument" that their systems produce too low a percentage of fissile plutonium-239 for warheads is "correct."
Many Koreans see such constraints as an affront that may weaken US-Korean cooperation on military and diplomatic issues. The rift assumes greater importance as South Korea produces more nuclear energy – and competes as a major producer of reactors. Also tangling matters is the prospect of running out of storage space.
A rapid reliance on nuclear energy
Complicating this discussion is the rapid expansion of the South's nuclear energy industry. The government's goal is to produce 100 or so reactors in 20 years, including 80 for export in competition with the US, Japan, France, and China. South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, places top priority on the export of reactors.