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(2nd LD) S. Korea, U.S. take first step in implementation of nuclear energy accord

All Headlines 15:21 April 14, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with details, U.S. official's meeting with South Korean foreign minister; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States on Thursday took their first step in implementing a bilateral nuclear energy accord that opens a pathway for the Asian ally to develop key technologies and ensure a secure supply of nuclear fuel.

After more than four years of negotiations, the two sides struck a deal last April to revise their 1974 nuclear cooperation pact to reflect South Korea's growing status in the global atomic power industry.

The new agreement opens the door for South Korea to conduct research into a nascent technology known as "reprocessing" and produce low-enriched uranium with U.S. consent.

It also calls for the establishment of a high-level bilateral panel to discuss those issues and other areas of nuclear energy cooperation.

On Thursday, the High Level Bilateral Commission held its inaugural session in Seoul, led by Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

"I want to emphasize as we begin this new forum that this is emblematic of the rock solid security commitment that the United States has made to the Republic of Korea and the importance of our continuing to work side by side to ensure the prosperity and security of the peoples of both of our countries," Sherwood-Randall said in her opening remarks.

The commission is comprised of four working groups to each handle issues related to spent fuel management, assured fuel supply, export cooperation and nuclear security.

At the first session, the working groups are scheduled to adopt their terms of reference and work plans.

It remains to be seen how much progress the two sides will make on the issues of pyroprocessing and producing low-enriched uranium.

South Korea wants to develop pyroprocessing to better manage its spent nuclear fuel as its storage facilities reach capacity. Pyroprocessing poses fewer proliferation risks than the conventional reprocessing technology because it does not produce pure plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.

South Korea also wants to produce low-enriched uranium to ensure a stable supply of fuel for its atomic power plants. The country is an exporter of nuclear power plants and operates two dozen nuclear reactors in the country.

The U.S., however, has expressed concerns about the possible risks to its global nonproliferation drive.

Ahead of the meeting, Sherwood-Randall met with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, during which they discussed the commission's meeting, the North Korean nuclear issue and nuclear security cooperation, according to Yun's ministry.

Yun said the commission's inaugural session carries special significance as the start of a new partnership in nuclear energy and reflects the "comprehensive strategic alliance" of the two nations, the ministry said in a press release.

As a model of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the meeting is also expected to send a meaningful message to North Korea amid its reckless nuclear provocations, he said.

He also called for continued efforts by the allies to make North Korea realize that denuclearization is the only way to free itself of recent U.N. and bilateral sanctions against the regime.

hague@yna.co.kr
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