South Korea and the United States reached a deal on Wednesday to revise a 40-year-old civil nuclear pact that gives the Asian country limited freedom to produce fuel for power generation but continues to curb its ability to reprocess spent fuel.
The deal paves the way for South Korea to enrich uranium to produce non-weapons grade nuclear fuel under guidelines to be drawn up by the two countries and also requires the United States to ensure it a stable supply of fuel for nuclear reactors, according to the South Korean foreign ministry.
The agreement, which still needs approvals in both countries, contains no provision to allow South Korea to independently manage spent nuclear fuel through reprocessing, although it opened the way for easier movement of spent fuel to a third country for disposal.
South Korea, which runs 23 atomic plants that provide a third of its power, has pushed for greater leeway to manage its nuclear fuel and had sought to revise the original pact with Washington to let it reprocess spent fuel.
But reprocessing of spent fuel is a thorny diplomatic issue because of proliferation concerns, especially on the Korean peninsula where North Korea has defied efforts by the international community and pushed to develop nuclear weapons.
South Korea’s nuclear reactors add a total of 750 tonnes of spent fuel every year to the 13,300 tonnes that filled 71 percent of its storage capacity as of 2013, according to operator Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co Ltd.
The deal reaffirms the two countries’ commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear arms while addressing South Korea’s need for stable fuel supply and spent fuel management, said U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert.
“The proposed agreement is one of the most sophisticated and dynamic peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements we’ve ever negotiated,” Lippert said, after officials of both countries initialled the agreement in Seoul.
The deal reaffirmed the two countries’ research into so-called pyroprocessing technology, which allows for the production of nuclear energy without separating plutonium, but which remains a distant prospect. A joint feasibility study is due by 2020.
South Korea said the agreement would promote its ambitious policy of exporting nuclear power plants under a new provision allowing the transfer of U.S. nuclear material and equipment to third countries without authorisation in individual cases.
The existing deal between the two countries expired last year but was extended for two years.