South Korea is poised to demand revision of an atomic energy agreement with the United States, after having won from the United Arab Emirates a multibillion-dollar contract to build third-generation nuclear reactors in the Middle East.
In a recent meeting with lawmakers, Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said that the decades-old atomic energy agreement with the U.S. puts "excessive restraints" on nuclear material and reprocessing areas.
Last July, some politicians called for an end to the nuclear cycle through the reprocessing of spent fuel for peaceful and economic purposes; others demanded more nuclear freedom to counter North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The South Korea-U.S. atomic energy agreement signed in the 1970s expires in 2014. From an economic and environmental perspective, the agreement should be rewritten. By 2016, the country's 20 nuclear reactors will have reached their maximum storage capacity. Local scientists have already developed the technology for pyroprocessing, a safe method of separating spent nuclear material by electrolytic means, and are waiting to test it. If they succeed, it will be possible to extract more energy through recycling.
The new technology will allow nuclear waste to be reprocessed and would reduce the amount of spent nuclear fuel by less than one-twentieth from current levels. At the same time, it minimizes the supply of plutonium that can be used as nuclear weapons fuel. It can also help save the expense and risk of operating nuclear power plants while dispelling the suspicion that our nuclear ambition extends any farther than the desire for electrical power.
But the current energy agreement with the U.S. hampers the application of the new technology. The government must strive harder to revise the agreement by building a better case for its revision. However, we disagree with politicians who are extending the issue to the nation's nuclear sovereignty. Such comments can injure our international status and threaten the safety of our country. We cannot isolate ourselves and turn the world against us like North Korea has done. Their comments also undermine the work our scientists have done to develop nuclear energy for economic purposes.