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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Since a Korean consortium led by the state-run KEPCO won a US$20 billion nuclear power plant project in the United Arab Emirates late last year, much is being talked about the country emerging as a global leader in the peaceful use of nuclear power.

WISE Amsterdam - South-Korea’s administration led by Lee Myung-bak plans to turn Korea into a new export powerhouse of nuclear power plants by building 80 nuclear reactors worth US$400 billion around the world over the next 20 years. But discussion in the country is heating about “restoration of its right to reprocess spent fuel,” as the Korean Herald described it in an editorial in its January 15 issue.

So, attention is directed to the 1973 Korea-U.S. Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which provides various restrictions on Korea's handling of nuclear materials, requiring prior U.S. consent to the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel. The bilateral agreement expires in March 2014 and the two countries have to negotiate a replacement agreement. Late January the two countries will meet to hold behind-the-scenes discussions about the issue.

“Korea has pressing needs to change the pact to a less restrictive one so it could engage freely in the global (peaceful) nuclear power market”, according to another editorial in the country’s English Daily. Reprocessing is said to be important too, to “resolve the growing amount of spent fuel by reprocessing it on its own.” When nuclear proponents talk about solving the waste problem, they usually mean postponing (the need for) a disposal solution.

As of the end of 2009, about 10,800 tons of spent fuel is stored in temporary pools at nuclear power plants and with the addition of some 700 tons each year from 20 reactors these pools will be full by 2016.  In order to dispose of the large volume of spent fuel from the existing reactors and those to be built in the future, Korea will need a storage site 30 to 40 times larger than the low-level waste storage site near Gyeongju that the government secured through so many difficulties at so much cost.

Given the U.S. proliferation concerns on the Korean Peninsula heightened by North Korea's nuclear arms program, getting a more ‘liberal” nuclear cooperation agreement ratified by U.S Congress will be sensitive. Sending the waste to European reprocessing plants (in La Hague or Sellafield) would be another ‘solution’ but really not favoured by the South Korean who wish to obtain  "Nuclear sovereignty".

Representatives of the two countries will meet also at the second preparatory meeting on Febr. 9 in The Netherlands for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April.  US president Barack Obama has announced his intention to host an international  Nuclear Security Summit last year. After almost a decade (since 9/11) fighting nuclear terrorism, characterised by at hoc initiatives aimed at curbing the illegal trafficking of nuclear related material, the new US administration seems to be eager to work in order to coordinate the different  bilateral and multilateral programs and achieve some sort of institutionalization of the different initiatives. The Nuclear Security Summit might be the first building block of a new international nuclear proliferation regime but in order to reach a successful conclusion the US government will have to weigh the advantages of institutionalization against the need for flexibility and wider participation. In May the (5 yearly) review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty takes place in New York.

South Koreas nuclear sovereignty #1

In 2004  South Korea admitted that it had an AVLIS (Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation) enrichment program from 1991 to 2000, and that it had also extracted  plutonium in 1982 and had declared neither activity to the IAEA. Following Seoul's disclosure, the IAEA launched a full investigation into South Korea's nuclear activities. In a report issued on November 11, 2004, the IAEA described the South Korean government's failure to report its nuclear activities a matter of 'serious concern'. The Board of Governors decided to not make a formal finding of noncompliance, and the matter was not referred to the Security Council. This although the country did not have a very good proliferation track record.

It was commonly known that from 1968 to 1975 South Korea attempted to obtain both a plant to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel (the 'reprocessing plant') and intermediate-range missile delivery systems. After 1971, an organized South Korean effort to develop a  bomb was orchestrated by the Weapons Exploitation Committee with presidential-level backing. After pressure by the US and the threat to rupture the US-South Korean alliance the country terminated (alledgedly) its nuclear wepaons program in 1975; in April 1975 South Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and a few months later in November a full-scope safeguard agreement.

But in the early 1980's specialists were aware that KAERI (Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute) was conducting reprocessing experiments.  In 1984 the US halted a Canadian transfer of mixed oxide fuel-related reprocessing technology to South Korea. Certainly after the military dictatorship was overthrown in 1987, there were many voices that the country should obtain its own nuclear weapons.

Sources: Korean Herald, 15 & 20 January 2010 / The Korea Times, 24 January 2010 / ISPI Policy Brief: "Obama's 2010 Nuclear Security Summit and the International Non-proliferation Regime", October 2009 / Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, Jan/Febr. 2005

Korean research reactor for The Netherlands?

South Korea is not only planning to become a dominant factor on the nuclear power reactor market, but also on the research reactor market. Korea won the contract for a nuclear research reactor from Jordan in December. The Korean consortium (KAERI, Korean Power Engineering Co and Dosan Heavy Indsutries & Construction) is planning to bid again in case The Netherlands conducts another international tender for the construction of a 80 MW(t) research reactor to replace the High Flux Reactor in Petten. The Netherlands (NRG, the operator), selected Argentina's INAVP in June last year as the priority partner, but on January 15, according to KAERI the negotations with INVAP where called off. KAERI said that "The Netherlands is likely to conduct another international tender in the second half of this year". As it wins the contract, Korea is expected to dethrone Argentina as the world leader in nuclear research reactors. NRG is not willing to comment in this stage, a press release will follow (but after the deadline for the Nuclear monitor)

Source: The Dong-A Ilbo, 26 January 2010