x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Seoul set on revisiting enrichment deal with US

The Korean negotiations are just one of the diplomatic dances the US is involved in with other nations over the right to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel.

SEOUL // As the world's leaders gather for their biggest summit on nuclear issues, South Korea is pushing for the right to manufacture or recycle nuclear fuel.

An agreement with the US, in which it forfeited the right to manufacture or recycle nuclear fuel, ends in 2014.

Seoul wants to negotiate a new treaty giving it more rights to enrichment.

"Korea must have a right for the enrichment. Nobody can deny this," said Soon-Heung Chang, the president of the Korean Nuclear Society, a national private research group.

"If Korea doesn't have a right, then nobody can actually have the right for enrichment."

The Korean negotiations are just one of the diplomatic dances the US is involved in with other nations over the right to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. Vietnam and Jordan, which hopes to launch the Arab world's second nuclear power programme, are also in talks with the US.

But the Obama administration, pursuing a policy of non-proliferation in Seoul, is reluctant to step back from the "gold standard"- an agreement it brokered with the UAE in 2009 in which the Emirates promised to forgo enrichment or reprocessing any spent fuel, American or otherwise.

"As long as this administration and those people are in power, they would be against it," said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.

"If I were the Koreans, I would hope I had better luck with a new administration."

But a paper co-authored this year by Daniel Poneman, the US deputy energy secretary, has given negotiating nations hope for more relaxed agreements. Mr Poneman advanced what he called "a case by case" approach that would allow the US to sign more flexible agreements and maintain a foothold in developing nations' nuclear programmes.

India, which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which South Korea and other nations have signed, sealed a so-called 123 agreement with the US in 2008 in which it retained the rights to enrichment and reprocessing but pledged to work toward greater cooperation.

Pakistan, which has enrichment facilities, does not have any such agreement with the US.

South Korea signed its 123 agreement, as the treaties are called, with the US in 1974, four years before its first, American Westinghouse plant went online.

Much has changed since. It has switched on another 22 nuclear power plants and is grappling with where to store spent fuel.

In 2009, a coalition led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation won a US$20.4 billion (Dh74.9bn) nuclear power plant contract to build a nuclear plant for the UAE.

South Korea has a generation of nuclear scientists, all eager to put their nation on the path to energy independence.

Its says it needs the option to enrich uranium to low levels - five per cent, or below the requirements for an atomic weapon - as insurance in case the cost of enriched fuel suddenly rises. Energy security is a key concern for a nation that has to import almost all its oil.

Kim Sung-Hwan, the South Korean minister of foreign affairs and trade, was diplomatic when asked about the negotiations.

"The Korean industry, we are exporting our nuclear reactors to foreign countries, so in that respect, we'll discuss [the 123 agreement] with the United States," Mr Kim said on the sidelines of the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, where the leaders of 53 nations are meeting over nuclear issues . "This agreement is a very important process, and that's why it takes very detailed discussions."

Since the agreement only applies to nuclear fuel from the US or used in US-supplied reactors, South Korea can still turn to a significant inventory of spent fuel from French and Canadian suppliers.

But it is reluctant to proceed with the blessing of the US, a close political ally and military protector.

"The United States, they don't have to be unhappy about it, because it's research and development," said Jooho Whang, a nuclear scientists who heads the Korea Institute for Energy Research.

"This kind of R and D [research and development] takes a pretty long time, so it's not now or never. It's now or 'how long'. It takes several decades."