The US-ROK Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: Overcoming the Impasse
The United States and Republic of Korea have enjoyed a strong partnership for over 60 years, which has contributed to peace, security, and prosperity in the southern half of the peninsula. It is an impressive success story of which Koreans and Americans can be proud. A significant part of that success is cooperation in the civil uses of nuclear energy, which started out as a one-way street, with the United States, the senior partner, supplying the ROK with equipment and technology to get it started in the nuclear field. Over the years, however, the big brother, little brother relationship has been completely transformed. The United States still has more nuclear reactors than any other country–103, but South Korea has one of the largest and fastest growing programs in the world, with 23 operating reactors and plans to nearly double both that number and the share of ROK electricity generated by nuclear power. It has emerged as a major player in the worldwide nuclear market, with its US$20 billion deal with the UAE and hopes to export about 80 reactors by 2030. Nuclear cooperation is no longer a one-way street. Westinghouse is a sub-contractor to KEPCO in the UAE project. ROK firms, especially Doosan, are providing reactor vessels and other heavy components to the AP1000 reactors being built in the states of Georgia and South Carolina. In nuclear energy research and development, South Korea is one of America’s major partners, if not the major partner.
In the last couple of years, a question mark has appeared over this vibrant partnership because of difficulties in concluding a successor agreement to replace the current 123 civil nuclear agreement. With the clock running out on the current agreement, and the two sides still divided on a central issue, they decided earlier this year to extend it for two more years, giving them more time to find a solution and to ensure that nuclear cooperation can continue without interruption. The two met in early October in Washington. I understand they made further progress on secondary issues, but differences remain on the central issue. Some observers have seen this disagreement as a clash of competing and incompatible objectives and a litmus test of the alliance. Some have predicted a train wreck. I do not share this gloomy assessment. The issues are difficult, the stakes substantial, and the disagreement does have the potential to disrupt nuclear cooperation and become a significant irritant in the bilateral relationship, but I am confident that agreement will be reached in time. Not only will the successor agreement allow mutually beneficial nuclear cooperation to continue, it will elevate cooperation to a new level. I am confident not only because enduring bonds of friendship have always enabled the two to overcome seemingly intractable difficulties, but also because time works in favor of finding a mutually acceptable solution. For the most pressing, near-term challenges, we have proven, well-understood solutions. For longer-term challenges that require more research and collaborative effort to understand available options and make the right choices, we can afford to take more time.
The Central Issue
The main stumbling block to reaching a successor 123 agreement has been the issue of reprocessing and enrichment—two dual-use technologies that can be used either in the civil fuel cycle or in the production of weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. The ROK wants the successor agreement to provide US advanced consent for South Korea to reprocess US-origin spent fuel and enrich US-supplied uranium. The United States does not want to provide that consent now. Instead, it wants to keep the issue under review and defer a decision on consent until we better understand key technologies, evolving market conditions, and the implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The ROK would like to have a green light on a technology called pyroprocessing. South Korean nuclear scientists believe pyroprocessing is proliferation-resistant because it does not separate pure plutonium from spent reactor fuel. The United States considers pyroprocessing to be a form of reprocessing only slightly more proliferation-resistant than traditional reprocessing because, with additional chemical processing that can be performed by most states, the product can readily yield pure plutonium. ROK scientists see pyroprocessing as a long-term solution to South Korea’s increasingly urgent spent fuel management problem because it can reduce the volume of nuclear wastes. Moreover, they believe it can contribute to meeting the ROK’s long-term energy needs because the product can be used to fuel future fast reactors. The ROK also wants the capability to enrich uranium domestically in order to ensure that South Korea will have a reliable source of enriched fuel for its growing fleet of light water reactors, anticipating that domestic enrichment will strengthen the competitiveness of its nuclear industry in the global nuclear market because the ROK will be able to offer customers a package of both reactors and fuel, as some of its competitors are able to do.
President Park, who has strong technical credentials herself, took a keen interest in the 123 issue when she assumed office earlier this year. She has repeatedly stated three goals: To alleviate the spent fuel storage problem; to ensure reliable access to enriched uranium to fuel the ROK’s nuclear reactors; and to promote the competitiveness of South Korea’s nuclear industry in global markets. The United States fully supports those goals, and it believes they can be achieved without taking a decision at this time to provide advanced consent on pyroprocessing or enrichment.
All recognize that spent fuel is a serious problem. Storage pools at ROK reactors will run out of storage capacity by around 2024, but pyroprocessing cannot possibly solve the immediate and middle-term storage problem. Pyroprocessing is still an experimental technology. It has been demonstrated on a laboratory scale, but it has yet to be proven on an industrial or commercial scale. The economics of pyroprocessing are still unknown. Traditional reprocessing has proven to be a very expensive way to manage spent fuel. Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant cost US$20 billion and will have an operating cost of about US$2 billion a year. Its operating date has been delayed many times and is still in doubt. Other reprocessing programs, including in Europe, have also been uneconomical. That is a major reason why several countries that initially pursued reprocessing eventually decided to abandon it. They include Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and, notably, the United States. At a minimum, the economic case for pyroprocessing has yet to be proven.
Also unclear are the nonproliferation implications of pyroprocessing. Preliminary discussions have taken place between the IAEA and South Korea on whether a large-scale pyroprocessing plant can be adequately safeguarded, i.e., whether the IAEA can verify that no nuclear materials have been diverted to non-peaceful uses. Reprocessing facilities are among the most difficult facilities to safeguard, and the answers for pyroprocessing are not yet available. Given these uncertainties, the United States and ROK agreed to begin an unprecedented joint examination of the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation implications of pyroprocessing and other spent fuel management methods. Called the Joint Fuel Cycle Study, it is scheduled to take 10 years after getting underway in 2011.
To enable the sharing of sensitive technology necessary to carry out the study, the two governments recently concluded the Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement, an agreement the United States has never concluded with any other government—an indication of its respect for its nuclear partner. The study is now entering phase 2. The US participants are pleased with how it is proceeding and impressed with the capabilities of their South Korean counterparts.
To address ROK concerns that the current 123 agreement does not provide for advanced consent, the successor agreement will explicitly provide for a joint review of the consent issue on the basis of the findings of the Joint Cycle Study. But even if the study leads to a decision to provide consent for pyroprocessing—indeed even if a decision were made today to proceed—it would not help resolve South Korea’s near-term spent fuel problem. The ROK’s previously published plans do not call for building a relatively large-scale pyroprocessing facility until 2026 at the earliest. I understand that such a plant would have the planned capacity to process 100 tons of spent fuel a year, not nearly enough to process the spent fuel expected to be discharged from Korean light water power reactors at that time. So, in addition to all the spent fuel that would need to be stored when pool capacity fills up, there would be a large amount of newly irradiated spent fuel that could not be handled by planned pyroprocessing capacity in the 2026 timeframe and beyond. In addition, there is major uncertainty over the timing of fast reactors. Much of the spent fuel management and fuel conservation benefits advertised comes from using the product of pyroprocessing to fuel fast reactors, but the schedule for commercializing fast reactors has slipped significantly in countries throughout the world, and doubts have arisen whether the technology will ever be commercialized. This has especially been the case for the Monju fast reactor in Japan.
I have seen estimates that a commercial-scale fast reactor will not be operational in the ROK until the 2040-2050 period at the earliest. There could be a sizable gap between the start of large-scale pyroprocessing and the consumption of its products as fuel in fast reactors. The result would be a growing accumulation of pyroprocessed material—material that can be converted into bomb-making material—without a ready disposition path. The US Argonne laboratory is working with KAERI on the design of a prototype sodium-cooled fast reactor. Hopefully, their collaboration will increase chances for success, but even if it proves feasible and economically viable, realization of an advanced fuel cycle involving pyroprocessing and fast reactors is at least several decades away. Whatever the future of pyroprocesssing and fast reactors, interim spent fuel storage is necessary. Fortunately, a well-established and economical solution is available.
The United States has had extensive experience in dry cask storage of spent fuel, which is safe, effective, and affordable. Dry cask storage is now available at reactor sites in the United States, and we are currently exploring dry cask facilities at centralized locations. Estimates of the lifespan of dry cask storage have continued to grow. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that they are safe and effective for as long as 100 years. Dry cask storage is not new to the ROK. Dry casks are used at CANDU-type heavy water reactors around the world, and are presently located at the Wolsong reactor site. South Korea’s highly capable nuclear industry and engineering firms clearly have the capacity to manufacture them. In response to Park’s desire to move expeditiously to address the spent fuel storage problem, the US Department of Energy has begun a program of cooperation with ROK partners to share our experience and work jointly to develop practical solutions to the spent fuel storage problem, including the use of dry casks. An initial workshop was held in July and another meeting is planned next month. So, on the first of her priorities—spent fuel management—a near-term solution is available, even while joint research continues and options are kept open on pyroprocessing and fast reactors as a longer-term solution.
Reliable Assurance of Fuel Supply
On the second of Park’s priorities—reliable assurance of enriched uranium to fuel ROK reactors—there is not an immediate problem. For many years, South Korea has pursued a successful strategy of satisfying its enriched uranium requirements by purchasing LEU in the international market. It has wisely diversified its sources of supply to minimize commercial, technical, and political risks, dividing its purchases among the United States, France, and Russia. The market has worked well. There have been no disruptions. Today’s market—with demand and prices low—is a buyers’ market. Although market conditions can be expected to change—as, for example, Japan’s reactors come back on line—the market is likely to remain well supplied in the future. There is plenty of excess enrichment capacity in the world today.
Although all indications are that the market will remain a reliable and reasonably priced supplier of enriched uranium, there are steps South Korea could take to gain additional assurance. A promising approach, in my view, would be to acquire an equity share in an advanced, foreign enrichment operation. While such an arrangement would not give South Korea access to enrichment technology, it would provide guaranteed access to uranium supplies and substantial control over production in the plant in which it is an investor. My understanding is that such an approach is being actively explored.
An alternative option of seeking enrichment within South Korea has serious drawbacks. For commercial and geopolitical reasons, it is extremely unlikely that the most advanced foreign enrichment organizations like URENCO or Areva would construct an enrichment plant in the ROK—even a so-called black box arrangement designed to deny host country access to enrichment technology. Recent conversations I have had with some of these companies have reinforced the impression that they are not interested in locating an enrichment plant in South Korea. I think South Koreans have heard the same message from them.
There is also the option of South Korea developing its own enrichment technology and building its own enrichment plant. But I have heard great skepticism from experts that this would be a cost-effective approach for the ROK. No doubt South Korean scientists and engineers could develop effective centrifuges, but enrichment companies in the business for decades—repeatedly improving their methods and centrifuge designs—are at a huge advantage. It is very difficult for a newcomer to compete in terms of price or efficiency. For a new entrant into the field it is virtually impossible to produce enriched uranium more cheaply than it can be purchased. The Japanese example is instructive. Japan has done research and development on centrifuges for over 40 years and spent billions of dollars, but it has not been able to produce a competitive design. I have seen estimates that its cost to produce enriched uranium is about 2.5 times the world market price. At most, it has produced 10 percent of its enriched fuel requirements. Currently it is producing much less than that.
A country could decide to pay a very high price for the security of knowing that the fuel for its reactors was being produced on its own soil. But in the highly diversified, competitive, and well supplied international market for enrichment services, the risks of a supply cutoff or squeeze are extremely low, and could be reduced further by such approaches as part ownership in a foreign enrichment operation, building up an enriched uranium stockpile or reserve through foreign purchases, or subscribing to an international fuel bank. So, Park’s second priority goal—assuring a reliable supply of enriched uranium—seems readily achievable for the foreseeable future. Assurance of supply can be made even more reliable through various strategies, such as acquiring an equity stake in an existing enrichment operation.
Competitiveness in the Global Market
Park’s third priority goal is to promote the competitiveness of the ROK nuclear industry as an exporter. It has been argued, in this connection, that a domestic enrichment capability could enhance the ROK’s ability to sell reactors by allowing it to offer indigenously produced enriched uranium as part of the reactor deal, as Russia’s Rosatom and France’s Areva are able to do. But in today’s market there is little need for a reactor vendor to produce the enriched uranium for the reactors it sells. It—or the buyer—can acquire the necessary enriched uranium from a third country. Indeed, that is a common industry practice. Moreover, if indigenously produced enriched uranium is more expensive than what can be obtained on the market, which will typically be the case for newcomers to the field, then bundling domestic enrichment services with reactor sales will hardly make an offer more attractive. It is worth recalling that South Korea did not need to offer enrichment services as part of the package in order to win the highly lucrative reactor deal with the United Arab Emirates. Neither GE/Hitachi nor Westinghouse/Toshiba think they need to offer a package that includes enrichment services in order to compete in the reactor market. Even if the ROK were able to produce and sell enriched uranium much more cheaply than other enrichers, which is unlikely, a key factor to consider is that the total cost of enrichment is a very small share of the total cost of nuclear power.
What is most crucial to competitiveness is the ability to build a high quality, reasonably priced reactor on time and on budget, not the ability to offer indigenously produced enrichment services bundled together with reactors. Korea’s reputation as a reliable, efficient builder of safe, well-performing nuclear power plants will be the decisive factor in winning contracts with or without the ability to provide enriched uranium produced in the ROK.
It might be argued that domestic enrichment would provide security against cut-throat competition. What if, for example, Rosatom and Areva simply refused to sell enriched uranium to fuel ROK-supplied reactors as a way of casting doubt on the viability of South Korean reactor bids? In those circumstances, it might be argued that even very costly domestic enrichment would be justified as a means of ensuring the credibility of ROK reactor offers. The problem with this argument is that enrichers have a strong incentive to sell their product, especially in today’s market, and it is, therefore, very unlikely that such tactics would be employed. But if the ROK were nonetheless worried about such extremely competitive and unlikely practices, it could arrange for assured supplies from an enrichment organization that was not in the reactor business and was, therefore, not a competitor—an argument, perhaps, for seeking an equity stake in an organization like URENCO.
The United States understands and supports Park’s three main civil nuclear energy goals. It believes they can be achieved without taking a decision at the present time to provide advanced consent for pyroprocessing and enrichment in the ROK.
Non-proliferation: US Concerns about a Damaging Precedent
I am also aware of other, less frequently discussed reasons why the ROK would like to see a successor 123 agreement that contains approval for advanced consent. It sees itself, correctly, as one of the world’s leading nuclear energy countries and a close friend of the United States, and it asks why the United States should, for example, provide advanced reprocessing consent to the Europeans, Japanese, and even the Indians, but not to an ally and nuclear energy partner, South Korea. This is a very reasonable question, one that deserves a reasonable answer. I will try my best, although I know it may not be fully satisfactory or persuasive to South Korean ears.
The United States traditionally—and the Obama administration in particular—is strongly committed to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. It is a matter of vital national security interest. We know the ROK shares our commitment to nonproliferation. As part of our commitment, several Democratic and Republican administrations have discouraged the spread of fuel cycle capabilities to countries that do not possess operating enrichment or reprocessing facilities. EURATOM, Japan, and India possessed operating facilities when they were granted advanced consent. The issue is not any lack of trust in South Korea’s intentions. Despite recent public comments by some South Koreans, I do not believe the ROK government has any serious interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and accept at face value assurances that it only wants fuel cycle capabilities for civil nuclear energy purposes. The problem is the precedent it sets for others. More and more countries are now interested in nuclear energy. There is a growing queue of countries lining up for 123 agreements with the United States, among them Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Vietnam. They will all be watching the US-ROK 123 negotiations. If a successor agreement provides advanced consent, especially if it does so soon, it will send a signal to them and others that the United States is comfortable with the spread of indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. This will be damaging to our shared nonproliferation goals.
We both also want to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons capabilities, and that will involve abandoning its fuel cycle capabilities. Given the present attitude of the DPRK regime, we know this will be very difficult and could take a long time. We also know they have consistently violated the 1992 North-South denuclearization agreement. But as long as we are committed to the complete denuclearization of North Korea—and we are and will remain so—we know that this task will be made even more difficult if the North can cite active fuel cycle programs in the South.
Parity with Japan
I recognize that a politically-charged and even emotional issue in South Korea is the desire for parity with Japan’s 123 agreement, which provides advanced consent. I can understand ROK feelings on this point, but I would ask South Koreans to bear in mind three points. First, the granting of advanced consent to Japan took place at a time when Japan already had an operational reprocessing capability, not an experimental program. Second, at the time, US and world concern with the implications of the spread of fuel cycle capabilities was not nearly as great as it is now. Third, and perhaps most important, the Japanese experience with both reprocessing and enrichment—spending many billions of dollars over several decades for programs that have provided little if any commercial value—is not one South Korea should want to emulate.
Taking the Time for Well-informed Decisions
It is also important to emphasize that the United States is not saying “no, never.” It is saying “not now.” It is saying let us not make premature decisions on such consequential issues as pyroprocessing and enrichment. It is agreed that there is much that is still not well understood about pyroprocessing. Let us take the time to work on it together and put South Korea in a better position to make a well-informed decision. Both sides should approach the issue with an open mind. Fortunately, there is no rush. The ROK can address the urgent problem of spent fuel storage while continuing to examine the best course for the long run. South Korea can also take steps now to ensure reliable access to supplies of enriched uranium and to maintain its competitive market position, and it can do so while continuing to evaluate the evolution of market conditions and keeping its options open for the future.
It would be one thing if the United States were asking the ROK to sacrifice its nuclear energy plans to support global nonproliferation goals, but it is not doing that. It believes that continuing to do purposeful, world-class research on critical nuclear energy problems and deferring major decisions the ROK can afford to take additional time to understand better is both sound nuclear energy policy and sound nonproliferation policy.
The Way Forward
With the two-year extension, the current 123 agreement will not expire until early 2016, but given the time needed for legislative approval, especially in the United States, the two governments cannot afford to relax. Most of the agreement is completed. Putting off the few hard issues remaining until the 11th hour would be risky. It could elevate the issue to the top of the bilateral agenda, leading to a hardening of public opinion on both sides and putting our presidents in a difficult position. So, I think the governments should seek an early agreement.
In my view, an agreement should contain the following elements. The current provisions on consent should be retained, at least for the present time, but provision should be made for a serious review of the consent issue once the Joint Fuel Cycle Study is concluded or sooner by mutual consent. If the two sides agree that certain criteria have been met, they could decide to revise the agreement and provide for advanced consent to pyroprocessing or enrichment. If they do, there should be prearranged procedures for expeditiously designating facilities in Korea where agreed fuel cycle activities could proceed. In advance of the review of the consent issue, the Joint Fuel Cycle Study should be actively pursued. Certain research and development activities relevant to decision-making on the pyroprocessing issue—activities not currently authorized to be carried out at ROK facilities—could be approved to take place at those facilities. This would not only provide a better basis for informed decisions on the consent issue, but would also provide useful practical experience, especially for South Korean personnel, should consent for full-scale pyroprocessing later be granted.
Looking to the longer term, KAERI and Argonne should move ahead promptly in their joint work on a prototype fast reactor because the progress and timing of their efforts will have an important bearing on key fuel cycle choices. While research proceeds on pyroprocessing and fast reactors, immediate steps could be taken to address the goals identified by Park Geun-hye. In particular, assisted by ongoing cooperation between the US Department of Energy and South Korean waste management experts, an urgent solution should be pursued to address the interim spent fuel storage challenge, perhaps employing dry casks. To meet the goal of reliable access to enriched uranium—whether to fuel ROK reactors or support South Korean reactor sales abroad—the ROK should actively explore options such as an ownership share of an advanced, foreign enrichment operation.
A successor 123 agreement will complement and support these efforts. It will bring cooperation between our two advanced and increasingly integrated nuclear industries to an even higher level, and it will be another important symbol of a close and enduring bilateral relationship. Reaching agreement will not be easy. It will require the ability of each side to understand the other’s needs and to make appropriate adjustments, but if both sides give priority to challenges that must be addressed now and for which we have available solutions—and if they recognize that some other problems could benefit from further study and do not require early decisions—then I am confident that a mutually beneficial agreement will be achieved.
This is adapted from remarks delivered at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul on October 4, 2013.