from Asia Unbound

South Korea-U.S. Nuclear Cooperation: How to Move Forward

shin kori 3 and 4_au

September 23, 2014

shin kori 3 and 4_au
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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South Korea’s vibrant civilian nuclear sector, which consists of 23 reactors that supplied approximately 30 percent of its electricity in 2012, was built through cooperation with the United States. The United States shared know-how and technology that enabled the construction and operation of South Korea’s first reactors in the 1960s. American companies such as Westinghouse and the former Combustion Engineering worked closely with South Korean counterparts over decades to build a vibrant nuclear power generation capacity in South Korea, a country that has virtually no indigenous energy production resources.

South Korea’s support for the nuclear sector has significantly lowered electricity costs, thereby contributing to South Korea’s overall modernization. South Korea has even become an exporter of nuclear power plants. But these successes have also created urgent pressures to manage spent fuel and have generated South Korean dependency on enriched uranium to fuel its plants.

When Park Geun-hye came into office in February of 2013, she inherited an impasse with the United States over the terms of a successor agreement to replace the existing agreement that was set to expire in March of 2014. The main issue dividing the two countries revolved around South Korea’s request for U.S. “advanced consent” to reprocess and enrich U.S.-origin nuclear materials or to do so in plants that contain U.S. technology. Given this impasse, the Obama and Park administrations quickly decided to buy time by agreeing to extend the term of the existing agreement (pdf) for two years. The U.S. Congress approved the extension last spring, giving the United States and South Korea some additional time to close the gap in their positions on nuclear cooperation. The extension was a face-saving way to avoid a clash in an alliance relationship that has steadily grown in its scope and importance for both countries.

But even with an additional two years, it may not be possible for the United States and South Korea to bridge the gap in their respective positions. For this reason, I advocate in a Council on Foreign Relations Policy Innovation Memorandum that the United States take additional time and use it to establish a consistent policy and clear standards of cooperation with countries that have advanced civilian nuclear programs. The results of a joint U.S.-South Korea study on methods for managing spent fuel in 2021 should provide the time necessary for the United States to develop a consistent policy toward nations with advanced nuclear energy programs committed to nonproliferation and provide a proper basis upon which to evaluate how the United States should respond to South Korea’s requests.

More on:

South Korea

United States

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