U.S.–South Korean Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement

After years of intense negotiations, the United States and South Korea signed a nuclear cooperation agreement this past June. It will enter into force in the next few months unless Congress acts against it. The agreement drew criticism from several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on October 1, 2015, for “opening the door” to enrichment and reprocessing, two technologies that can be used for peaceful nuclear uses or to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Q1: If South Korea is a trusted ally, why is this nuclear cooperation agreement controversial?

A1: South Korea has been cooperating with the United States on nuclear energy since 1956. There are close ties between the two nuclear industries (such as Westinghouse and Korea Electric Power Corporation [KEPCO]). South Korea is now an advanced nuclear energy state and desires to expand its nuclear industry. However, it has been pressing the United States for help in acquiring uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities—two sensitive technologies that the United States discourages other states from acquiring because they can be used to produce fissile material for weapons. Recent concerns about countries acquiring these technologies have centered on Iran, but the fact is they are sensitive no matter where they are located.

Q2: What does the agreement give South Korea?

A2: From the start, South Korea has pressed the United States to give advance consent to enrich or reprocess U.S.-origin fuel. However, South Korea does not currently enrich or reprocess, and it signed a joint declaration with North Korea in 1992 not to acquire such facilities. U.S. policy is only to extend such advance consent to countries that already have enrichment and reprocessing because these are the two most sensitive technologies in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The compromise in the new agreement was to grant advance consent for storage, transfer, and return of U.S.-origin material, probably to encourage Korea to send its spent nuclear fuel abroad for reprocessing. But the agreement specifically created “pathways” to a future decision on advance consent for both enrichment and reprocessing. One pathway is the Joint Fuel Cycle Study underway since 2011. It will report its findings on the technical, economic, and nonproliferation feasibility of fuel cycle options to a new High-Level Bilateral Commission. The High-Level Bilateral Commission, to be cochaired by the vice minister of foreign affairs in South Korea and the deputy secretary of energy in the United States, is a second pathway that ensures high-level attention to these issues for the foreseeable future. The Republic of Korea (ROK) will likely press for a new decision on advance consent in the next 5 to 10 years.

Q3: Why does South Korea want to enrich and reprocess?

A3: Worldwide, there are 31 countries plus Taiwan that have nuclear power programs. Of these, a handful enrich uranium and a handful reprocess spent nuclear fuel. They are mostly the nuclear-weapon states (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China). Japan is the only nonnuclear-weapon state that does both. Some, like the Netherlands, Germany, and Brazil, only enrich uranium (Argentina has a facility that is not enriching).

Economically, neither indigenous enrichment nor reprocessing makes much sense, which is probably why so few countries do it. For countries with small nuclear power programs (1–10 reactors), investments to develop enrichment or reprocessing capabilities are not financially justifiable. Most countries rely on the commercial market for enrichment services, and at present, there is overcapacity. Nonetheless, Korean officials have cited fuel supply concerns as one reason to engage in enrichment, along with enhancing their competitiveness in the reactor market. On the back end of the fuel cycle, reprocessing was once attractive when countries feared that uranium was in short supply, and so the investment to move to plutonium fuel seemed justifiable. However, that was 40 years ago, and the economics haven’t improved much. The United States does not reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel and has maintained that reprocessing is not necessary for a vibrant nuclear power program.

South Korea, however, has growing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel and limited storage space. South Korea is developing a kind of reprocessing—pyroprocessing—that does not separate out plutonium from waste products to recycle its light water reactor spent fuel into fuel for future fast reactors. Officials believe this conditioning of fuel will make nuclear waste disposal easier, but implementation is many decades away.

Q4: What is the impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy?

A4: The United States does not encourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing because they can contribute to proliferation. The advance consent envisioned for South Korea would give a stamp of approval to Korean enrichment and reprocessing. It lowers the bar for future negotiations with North Korea, and it could create a precedent that other states may seek to follow.

Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni