United States grants advance consents rights to Korea for overseas reprocessing

Shaun Burnie

The United States has granted for the first time advance programmatic approval for the Republic of Korea to ship spent fuel overseas for reprocessing. The protracted negotiations between both nations conducted since 2010, concluded with the signing on June 15, 2015 of a new Agreement For Cooperation Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. While most of the focus on the new agreement was that the Republic of Korea (ROK) would not be permitted to embark on spent fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment, this specifically applies to the development and operation of such technologies and facilities within the ROK. Whereas, the new agreement grants the ROK advance programmatic approval to ship spent fuel overseas for reprocessing.

This is a departure from the prior agreement between the two nations signed in 1974, under which the right to reprocess would require a determination that it would be in compliance with Article XI. This effectively gave the U.S. a veto right over the reprocessing of ROK spent fuel during the last four decades, despite the efforts of European reprocessing companies to secure contracts.

In the case of the return of 'recovered material' - plutonium and uranium to the ROK, the U.S. has committed its approval, but with both parties required to agree to which form, almost certainly it would be in fresh MOX fuel. The process for the return of MOX fuel to the ROK, would require a U.S. 'Subsequent Arrangement' to be concluded. Under Section 131 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Act of 1978, U.S. agencies would have to determine that the return of plutonium MOX fuel would not be inimical to its "common defense and security".

With the conclusion of the new Agreement, the long standing question that has plagued U.S./Korean nuclear relations for decades, why should the ROK not have the same reprocessing rights as Japan, has in part been answered.

In a Minute to the new Agreement, it states that,

2 - The Parties agree that irradiated nuclear material subject to Article 10 and Article 11 of the Agreement may be transferred (such transfers being hereinafter referred to as "retransfers") by either Party for storage and reprocessing to France, the United Kingdom, and also to any other country or destination as may be agreed upon in writing by the Parties. All such retransfers described in this paragraph shall be made in compliance with the policies, laws, and regulations of the recipient country, group of countries where applicable, or destination.
4 - In the case of irradiated nuclear material subject to the Agreement transferred by either Party pursuant to paragraph 2 of this Section, the non-transferring Party agrees to provide its consent, under the applicable agreement for cooperation, to the return to the territorial jurisdiction of the transferring Party of nuclear material recovered from irradiated nuclear material so transferred subject to the conditions that: (a) Any such nuclear material returned to the territorial jurisdiction of the transferring Party shall be subject to the Agreement; (b) Any such nuclear material recovered from any reprocessing in the third country or destination shall be transferred in the form and subject to physical protection arrangements as agreed in writing by the Parties.
6 - Arrangements for Spent Fuel Management and Disposition 1. The Parties have initiated a joint study to review the technical, economic and nonproliferation (including safeguards) aspects of spent fuel management and disposition technologies (the Joint Fuel Cycle Study). Following the completion of the Joint Fuel Cycle Study, or at such other time as the Parties may agree, the Parties shall consult with a view to identifying appropriate options for the management and disposition of spent fuel subject to the Agreement and for further development or demonstration of relevant technologies. The Parties shall conduct all consultations referred to in this Section as promptly as possible so that nuclear energy programs of either Party would not be unduly hampered due to the delay of the consultations.
After 30 years of nuclear power plant operation, the ROK has yet to secure concrete plans for spent fuel disposal. Attempts have been made to establish an off-site central spent fuel interim storage site but they have failed due to public opposition.The ROK maintains its inventory of spent reactor fuel in wet storage spent fuel pools at each of the four reactor sites, and at a dry storage facility at Wolsong. As of December 2012, there was 5,829 tons of PWR spent fuel in storage at the ROK's reactor sites, with an additional 6,878 tons of Candu HWR fuel. Annual PWR spent fuel discharge in 2011 was 300 tons and 380 tons HWR.

According to a study performed by an expert group composed of members of the ROK's nuclear establishment, the storage pools at the ROK's four reactor sites, Kori, Ulchin, Yonggwang, and Wolsong are projected to be full by 2028, 2028, 2024 and 2025.

In granting advance programmatic approval to the ROK the U.S. has adopted the same approach as the recently concluded agreement with Taiwan, with one significant difference. Whereas, any separated plutonium or uranium from Taiwanese spent fuel would not be permitted to be returned to the country, the ROK has been given that option. Such transfers would be conducted on a case by case basis as was the case between the U.S. and Japan prior to 1988.

The new agreement was signed only a week after an advisory body to the Government recommended that spent fuel dry storage should be undertaken prior to the establishment of a geological repository. There are currently no indications that the Korean nuclear industry have plans to enter into negotiations for the shipment and subsequent reprocessing in Europe.