USA and South Korea update cooperation deal

16 June 2015

Nuclear power cooperation between South Korea and the USA has been formalised and extended for another 20 years with the signing of their 123 agreement, which allows South Korea a little more freedom to manage nuclear fuel.

The signing of the new deal,in Washington DC yesterday by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se "charts a joint path forward to address critical issues facing both civil nuclear programs, such as used fuel management and assured fuel supply," said the US National Nuclear Security Administration. "Like all 123 agreements it contains essential provisions to ensure non-proliferation and nuclear security."

Yun and Moniz, June 2015 (MOFA) 460x300
Yun Byung-se and Ernest Moniz seal the deal

The text matches that which was initialled by the countries' representatives in April and includes a slight change to terms covering reprocessing and enrichment of uranium, which were prohibited under previous agreements. Now, enrichment of uranium to create fuel for power plants could be developed "in the future through consultations with the USA". Reprocessing of used nuclear fuel remains off-limits, but the text opens the door for used fuel to be transported abroad for disposal.

South Korea has to import 97% of its fuel, and that is one reason it turned to nuclear power in the 1970s, beginning with a Westinghouse unit at Kori. It now operates 24 nuclear reactors for one-third of its electricity.

Formal cooperation agreements are required between countries that want to trade nuclear power goods and services, and those involving the USA are called 123 agreements after the paragraph of the country's 1954 Atomic Energy Act which requires them.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the "especially intensive negotiations" that had taken place over the last few years. It had been keen to develop long-term policies on the so-called 'back end' of the nuclear fuel cycle - the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel as well as potentially its reprocessing and recycling.

Although success on that front was limited, Yun said he was pleased the eventual agreement "calls mainly for the efficient management of used nuclear fuel, stable supply of nuclear fuel, and the promotion of nuclear exports". The ministry said it reflects South Korea's "enhanced stature", referring to the fact that it is exporting nuclear reactors to the UAE and hopes to do the same to other countries, including the USA. 

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News