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Reuse of Nuclear Waste

Posted March. 13, 2010 09:50,   


At the Summit of Honor on Atoms for Peace and Environment, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said, “The world must develop a technology to turn nuclear waste into a resource, and to drastically reduce high-level nuclear waste,” proposing multilateral cooperation. This was the first time for South Korea to officially express its commitment to secure reprocessing technology for nuclear waste. Interim nuclear waste dumping sites at atomic power plants in the country will be filled to capacity by 2016. So time is running short for Seoul to find a way to drastically reduce high-level nuclear waste.

Reprocessing of nuclear waste spawns plutonium, a material that allows the production of nuclear weapons. For this reason, the U.S. has signed nuclear treaties banning such reprocessing with its allies, including South Korea, and effectuated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty forty years ago. Seoul has faithfully followed this regulation. It also made the 1991 declaration of staying a nuclear weapon-free country under which it agreed to give up nuclear arms. South Korea then invited North Korea to make a joint declaration on a nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula the following year. Pyongyang broke the promise, however, and has since conducted nuclear tests twice. Still, South Korea has kept its promise of no nukes.

In 1990, the (South) Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety was established to oversee the safety of nuclear power plants. In 2006, the country founded the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control, which blocks the conversion of nuclear materials for military purposes, and reinforced self-monitoring. Thanks to these efforts, South Korea has not raised fears within the international community and exported nuclear power plants to the United Arab Emirates.

Until the mid-1990s, the U.S. sought to develop “pyro-processing” that allows the reprocessing of nuclear waste and the reproduction of nuclear fuel anew without the extraction of plutonium. The project was eventually halted due to lack of budget. South Korea is the world’s most advanced country in pyro-processing. If this technology is developed, it can reduce the volume of high-level waste to 1/20th. Seoul has proposed multilateral cooperation and seeks a revision to its nuclear treaty with Washington to develop the technology jointly with its allies, including the U.S. Washington also plans to allow the reuse of nuclear waste as well.

Certain conservatives in South Korea say Seoul must possess “nuclear sovereignty” following Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. This theory only heightens fear in South Korea’s allies, and thus poses a stumbling block to the path toward reprocessing of nuclear waste.

South Korea is one of the world’s top three countries for nuclear energy. Hence, it is economically more advantageous for the country to prepare facilities for reusing nuclear waste rather than for its interim storage. Seoul must faithfully follow monitoring by and regulations of international organizations in the process of technological development and operations, and thereby emerge as a nation that proactively reduces anxiety over a common global fear: the reprocessing of nuclear waste.