Extension of U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Deal Disappoints Scientists

A South Korean nuclear power plant.

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The announcement on 24 April that U.S. and South Korean negotiators seek to extend the current terms of a long-term agreement on nuclear power cooperation is not pleasing anyone. Under the 1974 deal, the United States provides expertise and fuel to South Korea's nuclear power industry as long as the latter refrains from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel. The agreement is due to expire next year, and South Korea is chafing under its restrictions.

South Korea wants to enrich uranium to supplement its growing nuclear power plant export business, and it wants reprocessing technology to handle a growing stockpile of spent fuel from its 23 reactors, which produce nearly 40% of its electricity. The rub is that such know-how can also be applied to producing nuclear bomb material.

Unable to reach terms on a long-term deal, U.S. and Korean negotiators have opted to extend the current agreement for 2 years, though even that has to be ratified by the U.S. Congress. The issue is complicated by the nuclear threat from North Korea, which has prompted some South Korean politicians to call for the country to develop its own nuclear weapons. Many South Korean researchers scoff at the idea. The politicians "don't exactly know what they are talking about," wrote Kune Yull Suh, a nuclear engineer at Seoul National University, in an e-mail to Science prior to the 24 April announcement. But the fact that U.S. and Korean negotiators are kicking the can down the road doesn't please scientists. "Frankly, the nuclear power research community is disappointed," writes nuclear fusion specialist Gyung-Su Lee to Science in an e-mail. Lee, who led the development of South Korea's Korean Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research reactor, or KSTAR, emphasized that he is not involved in fission research, let alone weapons development. But he added that the community is deeply interested in developing enrichment know-how and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities "without the proliferation possibility." He noted that South Korea has adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and should be considered as trustworthy as Japan, which is developing enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

"The community will work hard" to convince U.S. decision makers of the country's true nuclear intentions, Lee writes. He expects "a good conclusion within two years."