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Decision Time: U.S. - South Korea Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation
Published March 14, 2013
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Washington and Seoul are negotiating the replacement of their 1974 civil nuclear cooperation agreement that expires in March 2014. Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act (AEA) requires exports of US nuclear material and equipment be made pursuant to a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement, and that cooperating partners agree to stringent nonproliferation conditions as a condition of US supply. The AEA also requires a proposed agreement lie before Congress for ninety days of continuous session before it may enter into effect. Given the Congressional calendar, an agreement realistically should be submitted to Congress by spring or early summer of this year. The clock is ticking, and the negotiators are stuck on two contentious issues: South Korean demands for US approval to 1) enrich any natural uranium supplied by the US, and 2) reprocess (or in the case of South Korea, pyroprocess) used fuel produced from nuclear material covered by the agreement and reuse the recovered nuclear material in its peaceful nuclear power reactors. Since enrichment and reprocessing (or pyroprocessing) can yield both fuel for peaceful nuclear energy and material for nuclear weapons, the US strongly opposes the spread of these technologies, particularly in areas of proliferation concern and instability such as the Korean Peninsula. Concerns are mounting that the allies may not be able to resolve their differences before the present agreement expires. How the two sides deal with these issues could have important implications not only for their nuclear trade but also for the US-ROK-alliance, future US peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements, the global nonproliferation regime, and the North Korean nuclear threat.

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