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(News Focus) S. Korea, U.S. buy time for nuclear pact, but prospects remain uncertain
SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) -- Despite more than two years of drawn-out negotiations, South Korea and the United States decided to extend the current nuclear cooperation pact by two years to 2016, giving the allies additional time to continue talks on whether Seoul should be permitted to produce its own nuclear fuel.
However, officials in Seoul reacted skeptically to the prospects for future negotiations because the U.S. is unlikely to allow South Korea to enrich uranium and reprocess nuclear fuel, a move that would go against U.S. President Barack Obama's broader nonproliferation agenda.

   South Korea and the U.S. started formal negotiations on renewing the 1974 bilateral agreement in October 2010. The pact prohibits South Korea from reprocessing spent atomic fuel because it could yield plutonium that could be used to build atomic weapons.

   Seoul wants Washington to allow it to use a proliferation-resistant technology for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent atomic fuel, but South Korea failed to win U.S. permission during six rounds of formal talks since 2010.

   The issue of reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium is a demanding agenda for both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Obama because many officials and politicians in Seoul see it as a matter of "peaceful nuclear sovereignty."

   Time had been running short because the allies must conclude negotiations by this summer for a revised accord to be approved by the U.S. Congress.

   Washington's policymakers have long been reluctant to grant Seoul permission because of the negative impacts it could have on efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambition as well as the effects it could have on Obama's non-proliferation initiative.

   "The two sides agreed to extend the current nuclear cooperation agreement by two years to avoid a lapse in the agreement and the next round of talks will be held in June," said a senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry who is privy to the negotiations.

   Seoul and Washington wrapped up the latest round of negotiations last week in Washington, about two weeks before Park visits the U.S. for her first summit talks with Obama.

   Extending the pact will "give Korea and the U.S. more time for close consultations and lay the ground work for the two sides to achieve good results in smoothly revising the agreement," the official said on the condition of anonymity.

   South Korea has repeatedly called on the U.S. to allow the country to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel "for peaceful purpose" as Washington granted such permission to the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) nations and Japan.

   The request from South Korea is aimed at forestalling a looming crisis of nuclear waste storage and providing full fuel supply contracts to its reactor customers.

   In December 2009, South Korea signed a US$20 billion contract with the United Arab Emirates to build four commercial nuclear reactors in the Middle Eastern country, flagging a new role for Seoul in the world's nuclear energy market.

   Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University who had served as a vice foreign minister under the administration of former president Lee Myung-bak, voiced skepticism over a possible shift in the U.S. nuclear policy toward South Korea.

   "Amid growing worries over possible terrorist acts using weapons of mass destruction, it would be burdensome for the U.S. to make an exception even for an ally," Kim said.

   In the face of growing nuclear waste stockpiles and its ambition to become a global power in the civilian nuclear industry, South Korea hopes to adopt the so-called pyroprocessing technology, which leaves separated plutonium, the main ingredient in making atomic bombs, mixed with other elements.

   South Korea wants the U.S. to allow it to use the new technology because it has to deal with more than 10,000 tons of nuclear waste at storage facilities that are expected to reach capacity by 2016.

   Some nonproliferation experts say pyroprocessing is not significantly different from reprocessing, and the plutonium could be quickly turned into weapons-grade material.

   In 2011, Seoul and Washington launched a 10-year joint study of pyroprocessing as an option to tackle nuclear waste problems, but some analysts are doubtful whether the technology could be commercially viable.

   kdh@yna.co.kr
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