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Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Frank N. von HippelJungmin Kang | January 13, 2022

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. The United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War but withdrew them in 1991. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. US and South Korean policy is to seek the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and achieve a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula. That goal currently appears distant, but South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons could make it even more distant.

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. Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory (outside of Chicago) and the Idaho National Laboratory (which originated as Argonne’s reactor test site), have encouraged that interest because of their own interests in plutonium separation. 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.

The report was produced by the Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute at the end of 2021. It addresses their 10 years of collaborative research and development (R&D) on plutonium separation, using a “pyroprocessing” technology developed by Argonne.

South Korea’s government has accepted the report as a justification for continued joint R&D on pyroprocessing and sodium-cooled reactors, and the Biden administration is not seeking an independent review. The leaked pages raise serious concerns, however, about the completeness and quality of the analysis. With regard to costs, the enthusiasts who authored the report ignored the lessons of decades of failed efforts to commercialize these dangerous technologies. Their strategy appears to keep their collaboration alive until new administrations come into power in South Korea and the United States, which they hope will allow the Korea Atomic Energy Resrach Institute to actually build a prototype pyroprocessing plant and a plutonium-fueled reactor.

Plutonium’s nuclear-weapon background. Plutonium was originally separated during World War II to make nuclear weapons. The chain-reacting material in the Nagasaki bomb was plutonium and virtually all the world’s 10,000 nuclear weapons today contain miniaturized versions of the Nagasaki bomb.

After World War II, plutonium also was promoted as a nuclear fuel. Argonne National Lab was originally established to develop what were expected to be the reactors of the future—liquid-sodium-cooled plutonium “breeder” reactors that would be fueled by plutonium while transmuting uranium into more plutonium than they consumed.

The dream of a world fueled by plutonium became a nightmare in 1974, however, when India used some of the plutonium the US Atoms for Peace program had helped India separate to test its first nuclear-weapon design and the US discovered that four other countries, including South Korea, were going down the same track.[1]

Since 1974, the United States has mostly opposed the civilian separation of plutonium—especially in states that do not have nuclear weapons. Today, 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. This due largely to Japan’s persistence in separating plutonium and memories of Japan’s exploitive and sometimes brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

[…]

In 1974, however, India reminded the world that plutonium is a dual-use material. (See above.) In reaction to India’s nuclear test, US policy flipped under the Ford and Carter administrations to opposing plutonium separation for civilian purposes. In parallel, Congress, concerned that the Atomic Energy Commission was skewing national energy policy toward nuclear power and not taking nuclear power plant safety seriously enough, broke up the AEC into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and what became the Energy Department.

Then, in 1977, the new Carter administration decided that the US domestic plutonium program was neither necessary nor economic. Breeder advocates fought back. In 1983, however, after the estimated cost of the Energy Department’s demonstration breeder reactor had increased fivefold, Congress ended the program. US nuclear utilities agreed—on the condition that the Energy Department would build a deep repository for their spent fuel.

The Energy Department nevertheless allowed the nuclear power divisions of Argonne and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to continue their research and development work in Idaho, using the Experimental Breeder Reactor II and an adjoining compact spent fuel “pyroprocessing” plant built to recycle its fuel.

Instead of dissolving the spent fuel in nitric acid as the nuclear weapon states have done to recover plutonium for their nuclear weapons programs, “pyroprocessing” dissolves spent fuel in molten salt and then a current is run through the salt to deposit the dissolved uranium and plutonium on electrodes.

In 1994, the Clinton administration finally shut down research and development on breeder reactors. It agreed, however, that the Idaho National Laboratory could use its pyroprocessing facility to process the accumulated Experimental Breeder II spent fuel into stable waste forms for disposal. (One of the authors—von Hippel—was the responsible official in the White House when these decisions where taken.)

When the Clinton administration was succeeded by the George W. Bush administration, however, Argonne resumed lobbying for pyroprocessing and, in 2001, 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 launched by South Korea’s then dictator, General Park Chung-hee.

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