In the past few months, Korea’s profile as a peaceful nuclear power has risen with the announcement of a deal for its first ever export of a nuclear power plant—to the United Arab Emirates. Since that announcement, Korea has reached an agreement to build a research reactor for Jordan and hopes to win a contract to build a reactor in Turkey as well.
Korea’s growth as a peaceful nuclear power has raised new issues relating to nuclear co-operation between the United States and Korea. When the initial U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in 1974, the United States was less concerned about the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. However, as the United States and Korea prepare to negotiate a new cooperation agreement, one of the key issues will be Korea’s entitlement to conduct pyroprocessing, a form of reprocessing, of spent nuclear fuel in Korea.
Since India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, the United States has sought to limit the spread of fuel cycle technologies related to enrichment and reprocessing given its concerns regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In addition to these concerns, the United States will have to weigh the impact of allowing Korea to pyroprocess spent nuclear fuel on its efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. For Korea, the issue is one of necessity, as its ability to continue stockpiling spent nuclear fuel is reaching its limit.