April 19, 2012
By Ruhee Neog
As the host of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, the Republic of Korea (ROK) stood at the centre of activities over the two-day Summit period, 26-27 March. It made a number of statements – the most significant of which this article will catalogue – and chart the trajectory of commitments made at the 2010 Washington NSS. ROK’s interests and the Summit’s assistance in the matter will also be discussed.
Acknowledging the centrality of the IAEA, the ROK pledged to raise its contribution to the Nuclear Security Fund, to which it has been associated with since 2002, to USD 1 million for the year 2012. A global nuclear Centre of Excellence (COE) was offered as a house gift during the 2010 NSS; its opening is scheduled for 2013. The intention to encourage an enhanced nuclear safety and security culture by collaboration and knowledge exchange with other COEs was also made evident.
One of the key discussion areas of the Summit was the vulnerability of nuclear and radioactive materials in transit. Towards this end, the ROK and Vietnam (with the support of the IAEA) announced a pilot project to set up in the latter a real-time tracking mechanism using GPS technology to prevent the theft of radioactive materials.
Another issue that has merited close scrutiny at both Summits is the conversion of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) in research reactors. As part of the effort to minimize the civilian use of HEU, the ROK stated at the 2012 NSS that it is in the process of developing a high-density LEU fuel technology, which is to be authenticated in collaboration with the US, France and Belgium by 2016. This is significant because research reactors are the second largest consumers of HEU and cannot be fuelled by regular LEU, and there has been no consensus on a uniform procedure for minimization. The intention to share this technology with others if it proves to be successful was also declared.
Hosting the Summit is of particular consequence for the ROK because it allows maximum visibility on an international platform. The absence of North Korea in this summit brought out a sharp contrast in the nuclear histories of the two Koreas. While the North is a massive illegal proliferator, the South has emerged as a legitimate player in the nuclear white market, notching up several export successes within the ambit of international norms.
ROK’s clever juxtaposing of nuclear commerce with nuclear safety and security at the Summit has both an internal and an external focus. Nuclear power has been instrumental in catapulting ROK as a major player on the world stage, and there are no plans of abandoning it. Instead, the intent is to increase the role nuclear power plays in electricity generation by 60 per cent by 2035. In addition, 2012 is election year and current President Lee Myung-bak hopes to give a fillip to nuclear power for energy security. It is currently being given a serious run for its money by the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), which has promised to roll back the ruling government’s ambitious nuclear power plans. Hosting the Summit therefore shrewdly links South Korea’s international image to one of nuclear leadership. The opposition’s ‘opposition’, therefore, is seen as somehow diminishing a newly acquired source of international validation.
Mindful of the need to allay domestic fears especially post Fukushima, a presidential commission purportedly for independent audits was appointed by the government in October 2011, apparently using the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a blueprint. Pronouncements of strengthening nuclear regulation through the ROK Nuclear Safety and Security Commission were made at the Summit.
Externally, the Nuclear Industry Summit, held on 24-25 March, allowed the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company (KHNP) to showcase its indigenous nuclear reactor designs and demonstrate an edge over other export competitors in the field of nuclear industry – US, Canada, Russia and France.
ROK may have also sought to advance another issue of national interest through the Summit’s agenda of global nuclear security. As part of the US-ROK peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement, the US provides materials and technology for civilian use to ROK on the premise that the latter will not resort to spent fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment which carry proliferation risks. This agreement is due to be renewed in 2014. However, ROK is now keen on a full nuclear cycle capability especially because the stocks of spent fuel accumulated over time need to be managed effectively due to lack of space, which would require a reprocessing capability. The three sites where the spent fuel is in storage are expected to be at full capacity by 2016. This however would be anathema to Obama’s non-proliferation ideals. Hosting the Summit therefore would allow ROK to physically demonstrate its credibility as a responsible civilian nuclear power with serious non-proliferation stakes. In the same vein, it announced a revision of domestic legislation to accommodate the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT).
Research Officer, IPCS
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