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The United States and South Korea are negotiating a new nuclear cooperation agreement that will have consequences for the conflict with North Korea, and for President Obama’s broader nonproliferation agenda.
As part of the deal, the South Korean government seeks American approval to enrich uranium and to reprocess nuclear fuel originally bought from the United States. This technology, which is prohibited in the current agreement, would enable South Korea to produce its own nuclear fuel and bring it closer to making nuclear weapons.
Granting that approval would be a serious mistake. A U.S.-South Korean nuclear agreement was first negotiated in 1974 and expires in 2014. The agreement has enabled resource-poor South Korea to become the sixth-largest producer of nuclear energy.
The nuclear industry says that South Korea is running out of space to store the spent fuel rods from the country’s 21 power reactors, and that it wants to recycle the rods for use again as fuel. Rising tensions with North Korea are a factor in South Korea’s increased interest in reprocessing nuclear fuel, and possibly having the option of producing nuclear weapons.
South Korea dabbled with developing a secret weapons program in the 1970s until it was abandoned under American pressure. Allowing the South to produce nuclear fuel would make it even harder for the United States to argue credibly for restraining weapons-related nuclear fuel programs in North Korea and Iran.
Such a decision also could give impetus to Japan to pursue nuclear weapons development. It has had American approval to reprocess fuel for energy purposes since 1988, and is considering whether to open a new reprocessing plant that could produce enough plutonium to make 1,000 to 2,000 bombs a year.
Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the nuclear pact in South Korea last week. U.S. officials expressed confidence that the two sides would reach a deal consistent with nonproliferation goals. Mr. Obama ignored those goals when he supported a deal in 2008 that allows India to reprocess plutonium and enrich uranium.
The United States should help South Korea solve its fuel-rod problem. But giving South Korea permission to manufacture its own nuclear fuel would weaken international security.
— New York Times