A Halt to South Korea's Nuclear Reprocessing

January 24, 2012 8:16 AM

The visit to Washington DC in January shed light on a new agenda: South Korea's nuclear reprocessing. Though not as crucial as the Futenma air base relocation or the procurement of F35 fighters, our neighbor's nuclear attitude has continued to be a swelling issue for Japan.

Japan currently depends on the nuclear fuel supply from the US, and the mutual agreement requires the approval by the US government in the case of reprocessing imported nuclear fuel.

The US-Japan Atomic Agreement of 1955 disapproved of nuclear reprocessing within Japan and clearly specified that spent nuclear fuel be returned to the US.

Later in 1968, the newly established agreement allowed for Japan's reprocessing in the case of a joint decision by the two nations.

After a 9-month negotiation over the operation of the reprocessing facility in Tokai, a US-Japan accord was finally concluded on September 12th, 1977.

The non-proliferation policies of the Carter administration caused friction between the two sides; however, Japanese nuclear authorities claimed with confidence that reprocessing was a right won by negotiations.

Similarly, in order for South Korea to embark on reprocessing, a revision of the US-Korea Atomic Agreement will be necessary. Experts predict that as the year 2014―the expiration of the current agreement―approaches, this issue will gradually become critical.

Local fears of the accumulation of spent nuclear fuel in the facilities and national precaution against North Korea's misuse of nuclear technology have added momentum to the movement for nuclear reprocessing.

It is estimated that several spent nuclear fuel pools in South Korea will be filled to capacity by 2016. Authorities insist, however, that relocation to new pools or to dry cask storage would be infeasible due to local opposition.

Though the US government lists economic inefficiency and the complexity of nuclear waste disposal as its reasons for opposing South Korean reprocessing, Korea strongly seeks to follow Japan's lead.

Since the nuclear testing by North Korea in May 2009, South Korea has called for nuclear sovereignty, demanding equal rights with Japan regarding nuclear reprocessing.

The US government fears, however, that approving the initiation of nuclear recycling in South Korea would make it more difficult for it to reject the following requests by other countries, such as South Africa.

Unfortunately, reprocessing does not have a positive effect for Japan at this point. Therefore, we must withdraw from reprocessing operations in order to convince South Korea to do the same.

Nuclear reprocessing in South Korea could potentially cause a nuclear race in the Korean Peninsula, which would violate the non-proliferation principle and destabilize the power balance in the Northeast Asia region.

A number of domestic advocates claim that reprocessing is necessary to emphasize nuclear deterrence. I strongly disagree. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University states that Japan possesses 45 tons of plutonium while the US uses 38 tons for its nuclear warheads. Deterrence is nowhere to be seen, and the continuation of reprocessing operations would make no difference either.

We must alter our nuclear policies and put a halt to our reprocessing in order to prevent the initiation in South Korea.