South Korea has made huge strides by focusing on middle of fuel cycle

Hecker Davis Braun SouthKorea 2013 logo
Chaim Braun (center), Peter Davis (second from left) and Sig Hecker (second from right) in front of the pressure vessel produced by Doosan Heavy Industries for the U.S. Vogtle Reactor under construction in Georgia. Changwon, South Korea (August 2012). CISAC

Nuclear energy is an essential engine that has helped to power South Korea’s industrialization and economic miracle. South Korea has become a world leader in both the domestic utilization of nuclear energy and its export potential. That journey began 40 years ago with the U.S.–South Korea Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (the so-called 123 Agreement). 

Despite its meteoric rise in nuclear power, South Korea faces serious challenges: It must demonstrate that nuclear power remains safe; that the government can convince the public to accept interim spent fuel storage and long-term geologic disposal; and that its choices of nuclear fuel cycle technologies do not compound global nuclear proliferation concerns. 

Because South Korea’s ascendency in nuclear power was built on close cooperation with American companies and was initially based on American technologies, its nuclear fuel-cycle choices remain in large part dependent on U.S. concurrence. 

The extent of U.S. control and influence of South Korea’s nuclear choices is the crux of the current negotiations for the renewal of the 40-year old agreement, which has been extended for two years until 2016. The position of the U.S. government appears to have been forged primarily on the pillar of nonproliferation. South Korea, on the other hand, views energy security, competitiveness of the industry, and its national security as equally important. The politics and symbolism of the negotiations appear to have obscured a rational analysis of South Korea’s nuclear future and its cooperation with the United States. 

A team of researchers led by me and others here at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) collaborated with a team from South Korea’s East Asia Institute, led by Professor Ha Young-Sun. Together we co-wrote a report, designed to look at these issues from both South Korean and American points of view.  

The CISAC team stepped back from the political stalemate and analyzed South Korea’s nuclear future based primarily on technical and economic considerations, but informed by the political situation. It conducted a TEP (technical, economic and political) analysis of the entire fuel cycle, which includes the front end (uranium mining and conversion; enrichment), the middle (fuel fabrication; reactor fabrication and construction; spent fuel storage) and back end (fuel reprocessing; spent fuel disposal; high-level waste disposal).

South Korea’s strategy of building a nuclear industry by focusing on the middle of the fuel cycle during the past several decades was brilliantly conceived and executed. Its nuclear industry is now among the best in the world. However, South Korea is advised to move to the construction of a centralized, away-from-reactor, dry-cask storage capability as quickly as possible. The TEP analysis finds it inadvisable for South Korea to pursue domestic enrichment in the short term because of the low technical and economic benefits, the ready global availability of enrichment services, and the substantial political downsides of pursuing such an option. In the longer term, if South Korea finds it needs enrichment capabilities as a hedge against supply disruption, large price fluctuations, or to enhance its reactor export potential, then it should pursue these strictly through international cooperative ventures.

South Korea’s strategy of building a nuclear industry by focusing on the middle of the fuel cycle during the past several decades was brilliantly conceived and executed."

 The TEP analysis also indicates that reprocessing spent fuel, either by the conventional PUREX process or by pyroprocessing, is not critical to South Korea’s short-term domestic program or its export market. Even if pyroprocessing can be shown to be technically and economically viable, its commercial development cannot be achieved rapidly enough to deal with South Korea’s near-term spent fuel accumulation problem. Moreover, the deployment of pyroprocessing faces considerable U.S. opposition. 

The best short-term option is to continue a robust pyroprocessing research program, preferably in cooperation with the United States as it is currently envisioned in the 10-year joint R&D program. In the longer term, the best prospects for the application of pyroprocessing are as a part of a fast reactor development program. The South Korean research team believes that pyroprocessing is an economically attractive alternative even for their current once-through fuel cycle; that is, it need not await the development of fast reactors because of the high cost of spent-fuel storage and eventual disposition in South Korea. 

Regardless of future fuel cycle choices, it is essential for South Korea to take immediate actions to restore the public’s trust in the nuclear industry. The government must deal resolutely with the industry’s alleged corruption problems and strengthen the government’s regulatory organizations dealing with all aspects of South Korea’s nuclear industry, as well as instill greater transparency and attention to quality matters in the Korean nuclear industry. This issue is closely tied to nuclear safety, which must remain the nuclear industry’s highest priority. 

Although the prospective terms for renewing the 123 Agreement were not a direct part of this study, we offer some overarching observations. First, the renewal should strive to develop a South Korea–U.S. partnership that reflects the enormous progress made in South Korea’s economic, political and industrial standing in the world since 1974. 

Second, Washington should not insist on the so-called nonproliferation “gold standard” adopted for the United Arab Emirates, in which countries developing nuclear energy pledge not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. Instead, the United States should strive for a criteria-based standard that better reflects a country’s technical, political, regulatory, and industrial capacity, as well as its nonproliferation record. 

Third, the agreement should not be constrained by the North Korean nuclear problem. Pyongyang has clearly violated the letter and the spirit of the 1992 North-South agreement. The nature of South Korea’s civilian nuclear capabilities has little, if any, influence on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. 

Finally, we should not allow the controversies over the terms of renewal for the 123 Agreement to overshadow what we view as the most important domestic and international consequence of South Korea’s meteoric rise as an industrial and nuclear energy power: It has emerged as a model state for future nuclear power aspirants by focusing on the middle of the nuclear fuel cycle.