Tag Archives: nuclear waste South Korea

The Secret Nuclear Weapons Capabilities of States

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel.

South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter North Korean attack. South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Plutonium separated from spent fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory  and the Idaho National Laboratory have encouraged South Korea’s interest in plutonium separation because of their own interests in the process. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-US report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. 

Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has domestic political support, however, for its demand that South Korea have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan. 

In 2001 Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (INL) persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program.

At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six US national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing. The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new US-Republic of Korea Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated when South Korea demanded the same right to reprocess the Reagan administration had granted Japan in 1987. 

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-US Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior US official with knowledge of the situation, told that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Excerpts from  Frank N. von Hippel, Jungmin Kang, Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger, January 13, 2022

Nuclear Waste in South Korea: the Gyeongju facility

South Korea’s first facility dedicated solely to storing radioactive waste will soon go into full operation, the facility’s state-run operators said in July 2014…The 1.56 trillion won (US$1.53 billion) facility in Gyeongju, 370 kilometers south of Seoul, was completed at the end of June 2014 seven years after construction began in 2007, according to the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD)…The facility was completed more than 19 years after the government launched the project to build the country’s first-ever nuclear repository.

The government originally sought to build a nuclear repository for both high- and low-level radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel, in the coastal city of Buan, 280 kilometers southwest of Seoul. The plan was scrapped in 2004 after weeks of violent protests in the city that left hundreds of people injured.  The facility was changed as a storage unit for only low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, such as gloves, goggles and other equipment exposed to radiation at nuclear power plants.

Gyeongju volunteered to host the facility, but only after the government agreed to keep high-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, out of the city…Currently, the Gyeongju facility consists of six underground silos that can hold up to 100,000 barrels of radioactive waste and an examination facility that holds about 4,500 barrels of such waste waiting to be moved to the silos.

Already, South Korea has about 100,000 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the past 36 years, since the country began commercial operations at its first nuclear reactor in 1978, according to KORAD.  The country operates 23 nuclear reactors, generating about 30 percent of its total electricity supplies and 2,300 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste each year.

A second-phase construction program is already underway to add an additional 125,000-barrel holding unit to the Gyeongju facility, which is designed to take in 800,000 barrels of nuclear waste over the next 60 years before it is completely sealed off.  A KORAD official said it takes about 300 years for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste to be neutralized.

South Korea is now beginning to discuss how it will manage spent nuclear fuel, but many say that determining where the high-level nuclear waste will be stored is the most crucial task.

Excerpts from S. Korea completes construction of first nuclear waste repository,Yonhap News Agency, July 12, 2014