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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KEPCO, the state-invested Korea Electric Power Corp., has signed a deal to export four 1,400-megawatt energy reactors to the United Arab Emirates for $20 billion and is looking for more such agreements. Delivery of those reactors is several years off, but South Koreans say they need the US to come to an understanding on recycling for the sake of the export market as well as for burgeoning domestic needs. KEPCO has overall responsibility, while a single company, Doosan Heavy Industries, is building the reactors in the city of Changwon, near the major southeastern port of Pusan. Numerous other companies provide parts and expertise.Skip to next paragraph
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South Korea is rapidly becoming reliant on nuclear energy – 20 light-water reactors now produce 40 percent of its energy needs, with 10 more due to go on line in a decade. By 2030, it will derive 60 percent of its energy from nuclear power.
At stake: US relations, and energy independence
Atop a hill overlooking another complex, this one at the historic site at Kori, where South Korea's first reactor began producing power in 1978, Lee Soo-il, a director, points to eight silos near the seafront. Six of them house nuclear reactors – and two more await installation of reactors. "We are trying to make our unit cost-competitive," he says. "Everything is stored here at this site. We are trying to figure out ways to deal with reprocessed spent fuel."
With all the emphasis on building reactors, L. Gordon Flake, director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, cites the reprocessing tiff as "very dangerous" – possibly "the most important" long-term issue in US-Korea ties.
"The challenge is to put the focus on nuclear responsibility, not nuclear sovereignty," says Mr. Flake, whose organization is dedicated to better US-Asia relations. "Cast as a question of national pride and sovereignty, it could be very damaging."
But at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, physicists were discovered to have enriched tiny amounts of uranium in 2000 without notifying even their own government. The International Atomic Agency in 2004 scolded South Korea for not having reported the experiments, but concluded they had stopped.
Any new US-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement, says Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York and a former senior US diplomat here, "will have to be in strict compliance" with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Lee Chung-min, ambassador for international security affairs, says South Korea is building "safeguards into our proposal" and "any reprocessing will be under the full purview of the IAEA." He links the issue to the South's rise as an exporter of reactors. At stake, he says, "is a matter of energy independence."
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.