By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, May 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new administration needs to focus on finding ways to expand its nuclear exports, especially to the Middle East, as it plans to resume talks with the United States on their civilian nuclear cooperation, experts here said Tuesday.
Seoul and Washington are moving to hold talks on the issue in Seoul in the first week of June, which would be the first round since they agreed to extend the current accord until 2016, according to diplomatic sources.
A lingering sticking point is Seoul's effort to leave the door open for uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel for non-military purposes. South Korea is prohibited from engaging in those activities under the existing agreement with the U.S., signed in 1974.
South Korean officials want enrichment as a nuclear export component since it would allow the country to offer more of a "full-service" package in selling nuclear reactors. They also cite the lack of nuclear waste storage facilities in the relatively small country.
Still, the U.S. is concerned about a possible negative impact to its global nonproliferation campaign. South Korea has proposed a new method called "pyroprocessing," with which it is more difficult to produce fissile materials.
"Focusing on particular technologies such as enrichment or pyroprocessing should be seen as less important than finding a 'win-win' solution where the two countries can work together to address Seoul's core concerns: short- and medium-term storage for spent fuel, sufficient fuel supplies for South Korea's nuclear fleet, and enhancing South Korea's nuclear export potential," said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
In a paper co-authored with his colleague Chen Kane and released at a seminar hosted by the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), he recommended South Korea and the U.S. continue to build on recent initial discussions on how the U.S. can support future South Korean nuclear exports.
South Korea hopes to become a major exporter of nuclear plants. It has operated about two dozen reactors without major safety or security problems for decades.
It won a US$20.4-billion contract with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to build four nuclear power plants there. Potential future export markets for South Korea include Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, Poland, and South Africa, as well as the U.S. and China.
Pomper and Kane said in reaching the deal with the UAE, South Korea apparently took advantage of its close nuclear partnerships with the U.S.
Politically, they pointed out, South Korea's connection with the U.S. allowed the UAE to avoid offending its primary security benefactor.
"However, it leaves South Korea vulnerable to any disruption in the U.S.-ROK (South Korea) nuclear relationship," they said. "Reaching agreement on a long-term nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. is crucial for future ROK (South Korea) nuclear exports."
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