Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
S. Korea, U.S. at Odds Over Nuclear Pact

Daniel Horner

Talks between South Korea and the United States on renewing their 1974 nuclear cooperation agreement appear stalled, with the main sticking point the countries’ differences over Seoul’s pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Many observers say they do not expect to see significant progress until next year, after the U.S. presidential election this November and South Korea’s in December.

A key point of contention is pyroprocessing, a spent fuel treatment process that South Korea is developing and says is significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing. A U.S. official has publicly disagreed with that claim, saying that pyroprocessing is reprocessing. (See ACT, April 2011.)

The current U.S.-South Korean pact gives the United States a strong say in South Korean reprocessing of U.S.-origin fuel. Seoul wants the new agreement to give it a freer hand in activities such as pyroprocessing.

In an attempt to sidestep the disagreement over pyroprocessing or at least prevent it from holding up renewal of the expiring accord, the two countries agreed to conduct a joint fuel-cycle study; work on it began last year.

In an Aug. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official said the purpose of the study is to “assess the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation aspects of spent fuel management options, including electrochemical recycling, otherwise known as pyroprocessing.”

The study, which is slated to take 10 years, includes three phases, the official said. “Questions on how to proceed on spent fuel management options will be addressed once the study is completed,” the official said.

A South Korean nuclear policy observer said the key issue in the study is whether pyroprocessing can be safeguarded. He made the comment during an Aug. 22 joint interview with other South Korean nongovernmental experts who are following the agreement negotiations closely.

If successfully developed, pyroprocessing could “serve as a better alternative to [conventional reprocessing] for future global spent fuel management needs,” he said.

Enrichment also is an issue in the South Korean-U.S. talks. The U.S. government, other governments, and nonproliferation advocates have been arguing for a system of fuel supply assurances to help dissuade countries from pursuing their own enrichment programs.

In the joint interview, however, the South Korean experts said a domestic enrichment capacity would provide greater assurance. Also, they argued, many of the countries that are the target of the fuel supply assurances have power programs of a limited size and therefore do not have an economic justification for a domestic enrichment program.

South Korea’s nuclear power program, with 23 reactors and more planned, is large enough to justify an enrichment program, they said. In addition, an enrichment program would enable South Korea, an emerging reactor vendor, to offer a package to its potential customers, as some other reactor vendors do, the South Korean experts said.

They said South Korea would not seek to develop its own enrichment technology but would pursue a so-called black box arrangement, under which the importing country does not have access to the enrichment technology and therefore cannot replicate it. An enrichment plant in South Korea or as part of a multilateral venture in another country would meet Seoul’s needs, the experts said.

A U.S. observer said South Korean negotiators have been “pretty dogged” in insisting on pyroprocessing but that it is not clear if they are as committed to an enrichment program, which surfaced as an issue in the negotiations more recently, or if they see it primarily as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

For the past two years, there has been debate within the Obama administration over whether the United States should press its potential nuclear partners to give up enrichment and reprocessing. The model for that approach is the May 2009 U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That pact contains a UAE commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing.

The United States is currently in nuclear cooperation talks with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, none of which now has nuclear power plants.

In the Aug. 22 interview, the South Korean experts said Seoul should not be viewed as equivalent to those three countries. If U.S. nuclear trade partners currently are divided between those that have enrichment or reprocessing programs and those that do not, there should be an additional “middle category” for countries such as South Korea, which has successfully operated a nuclear power program for decades, has a large reactor fleet, is a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and adheres to its nonproliferation commitments, they said.

Rather than opposing South Korea’s fuel cycle plans, the United States should support them and make the country a model, demonstrating that good behavior is rewarded, the South Korean experts said. That would be a counterexample to U.S. actions on India, they said.

In 2008 the United States and the Nuclear Suppliers Group lifted long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with India even though India remains outside the NPT and has not placed its nuclear program under comprehensive international safeguards.

In January, the Obama administration sent Congress a letter that was widely seen as a retreat from the UAE standard. Since then, however, sources inside and outside the government have said the United States is pressing Jordan for a commitment to restraint on its enrichment program.

In July, Global Security Newswire reported that Taiwan is prepared to forgo enrichment and reprocessing in the negotiations to renew its cooperation agreement. But Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued on the blog Arms Control Wonk that Taiwan is a special case and should not be seen as an indicator of U.S. policy.