South Korea (ROK), Japan and the United States all have large nuclear energy programs that are facing a variety of challenges limiting their growth, namely opposition by the nonproliferation industry to wider deployment of enrichment and recycling technologies. There is interest and opportunity to collaborate in developing solutions in areas where challenges overlap.
The Global America Business Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, recently hosted a forum that gathered high level representatives from all three countries as speakers to an audience made up of people from government, media, industry, non-profit groups and antinuclear organizations to discuss some of the challenges and solutions.
Several speakers, including Dr. Jooho Whang from the Korean Nuclear Society, Mr. Nobuo Tanaka from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, and Dr. John-hyuk Baek from the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute focused on pyroprocessing.
They described it as a field where all three nations could both contribute to and benefit from developing laboratory-tested technology into a more commercial product offering.
Pyroprocessing is a high temperature material recycling technology that was developed in the U.S. as part of the long ago discontinued Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program. One driver for its development was to create a way to extract and reuse mixed actinides from used reactor fuel without passing through any stages that produce separated fissile isotopes.
As envisioned, pyroprocessing would also enable material from used fuel rods to be promptly transformed into new fuel rods, thus addressing the contentious issue of building up large stockpiles of material that could be converted into nuclear weapons.
Even though it was developed with attention to limiting its use as a potential source of weapons-useful material, pyroprocessing is still tightly controlled under export control regimes. It is often a major discussion topic during the negotiations for bilateral cooperation agreements with the U.S.
A contingent of the American nonproliferation community stubbornly resists any development that might lead to a closed fuel cycle, ostensibly due to concerns about either material or useful knowledge development.
Dr. Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists attended the meeting and expressed that point of view by asking a question, muttering to himself and exuding negative body language.
Nuclear cooperation agreements with the U.S., known as 123 agreements after the governing section in the Atomic Energy Act, specify terms and conditions for nuclear technology and information cooperation.
Each agreement is individually concluded and some contain specific prohibitions on various components of the nuclear fuel cycle.
ROK has been interested in pyroprocessing for a number of years, recognizing that it has potential to make long term used fuel storage easier. The country’s indigenous development effort, however, has been confined to laboratory scale studies due to the limitations imposed by the original 123 agreement that it signed in 1974.
That first agreement expired in 2014. The new ROK-U.S. 123 agreement was signed in the summer of 2015 after an extended period of negotiation.
One reason for the extended discussions was that Korea insisted that it needed more flexible options for dealing with used fuel. At the same time, some U.S. negotiators were interested in adding conditions prohibiting both fuel enrichment and recycling.
The final agreement finessed the issue; it does not mention enrichment and recycling. Instead, the preamble to the agreement explicitly affirms that nonproliferation treaty signatories like ROK have an inalienable right to develop peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
The current agreement is also more balanced that the 1974 version, recognizing that Seoul has matured into a capable nuclear system supplier in its own right. It is no longer a subservient customer of a world dominating supplier.
As Dr. Whang described, the ROK and the U.S. have long been cooperating on pyroprocessing development and testing.
Korea produced a plan in 2008 that envisions a pilot-scale sodium fast reactor using fuel materials extracted from used light water fuel by 2028. In support of that goal, the plan envisions a pyroprocessing facility in operation by 2025.
In 2011, the two countries signed a ten-year agreement to continue the cooperation, with a completion goal in 2020 that fits well with the ROK’s existing facility construction dates.
A later speaker, Mr. Tanaka from Sasakawa Peace Foundation, suggested that Japan might be interested in joining the U.S. and Korea in developing pyroprocessing technology.
He mentioned that his country has recently decided to permanently shut down its Monju facility. That is the only currently operating sodium fast reactor in the country. However, Mr. Tanaka described that decision as a positive step that allows more options for closing the nuclear fuel cycle.
He suggested it is time for increased U.S.-Japan-Korea cooperation as Japan reduces its commitment to joint projects with France, especially those related to aqueous reprocessing.
Japan’s current 123 agreement with the U.S. explicitly allows both enrichment and recycling, but Tanaka warned that there are “antinuclear people” from Japan that are already working in Washington to prevent the automatic extension of the agreement when it expires in 2018.
He described the French aqueous reprocessing technology currently used as being more expensive than pyroprocessing. It is also unpopular due to the growing stockpile of separated plutonium.
Tanaka mentioned a visit to the Idaho National Laboratory where he toured the hot cells and other components that were developed for the IFR project. He saw that there was real equipment that had been fully tested at a laboratory scale and was ready for further refinement and development.
In addition to addressing the used fuel challenge that Japan shares with the ROK (and the U.S.) pyroprocessing has potential uses associated with the cleanup and eventual removal of melted fuel at Fukushima Daiichi.
By sectioning solidified corium into appropriately sized blocks, it is technically feasible to reduce the oxide material into metal and then to use electrorefining to separate the actinides from fission products.
Yoon Chang, a key member of the IFR team who remains active in international technology development efforts, confirmed the feasibility of the concept and pointed out a study titled “Conceptual Design of a Pilot-Scale Pyroprocessing Facility” performed in 2015 for Argonne National Laboratory.
Both Korean and Japanese speakers mentioned their interest in jointly pursuing a project that might lead to commercial demonstration of the GE-developed PRISM sodium fast reactor.
That design incorporates lessons learned from the IFR project and once passed through an initial design validation review at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
There are political reasons for optimism regarding increased cooperation and trade opportunities for technologies like pyroprocessing and Gen IV sodium fast reactors.
Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration’s nominee for secretary of state, a department that would play a key role in related deci- sion processes, recognizes that sanctions and technology trade restrictions can harm U.S. interests without effectively altering the behavior of the target of those restrictions.