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REPORT: Differences Over Spent Nuclear Fuel Management May Complicate U.S.-South Korea Negotiations

Washington, D.C., December 17, 2009 — The biggest challenge likely to surface in negotiations of a new U.S.-South Korea peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement will revolve around differing views regarding the best way to manage spent nuclear fuel, according to a new report by Fred McGoldrick released by The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy.

The report, New U.S.-ROK Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement:  A Precedent for a New Global Nuclear Architecture, discusses options for reconciling South Korea’s desire to manage its spent nuclear fuel through an experimental reprocessing technique, called pyroprocessing, with U.S. concerns about the nuclear proliferation risks of pyroprocessing.

The current U.S.-Korea peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement is set to expire in 2014 and negotiations for a successor agreement will begin soon. The U.S. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978—which had not yet been enacted when the current U.S.-Korea peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in 1974—requires that all new agreements give the United States the right to consent to reprocessing of nuclear material supplied by the United States and all nuclear material that has been used in a U.S.-supplied reactor. The report states that South Korea’s heavy dependence on nuclear power and lack of adequate storage capacity for spent nuclear fuel will lead the country to press the United States for consent to reprocess used nuclear fuel.

“South Korea’s development of nuclear energy production is a success story built on the foundations of past successful U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation,” said Scott Snyder, Director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. “For this reason, the efforts of the McGoldrick report to identify solutions to the most pressing concerns in U.S.-ROK negotiations will be helpful in addressing issues that might otherwise become sticking points in the bilateral negotiations.”

Among the findings and recommendations of the report:

  • The United States and South Korea could enhance their contribution to the non-proliferation regime by including in the new agreement pledges to: support the Non-Proliferation Treaty; strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards system, including with increased financial and technical support; and give formal recognition to the Joint Standing Committee on Nuclear Energy Cooperation, established by the United States and South Korea in 1980.
  • The United States will find it difficult to consent to any kind of reprocessing on the Korean Peninsula, particularly if Washington perceives that such a decision would jeopardize the satisfactory resolution of the nuclear issue in North Korea, including a nuclear-weapons-free Korean Peninsula.
  • Options for resolving the issue include: transferring some or all U.S.-origin spent fuel abroad for reprocessing and allowing a new technique called pyroprocessing, among other possibilities discussed in the report.

Fred McGoldrick, the report author, has decades of experience in nuclear non-proliferation and international nuclear policy at the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of State, where he negotiated U.S. peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements. He is a partner in the international consulting firm of Bengelsdorf, McGoldrick and Associates.

Download the full report, New U.S.-ROK Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: A Precedent for a New Global Nuclear Architecture.

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