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(3rd LD) S. Korea, U.S. take first step in implementation of nuclear energy accord

All Headlines 18:40 April 14, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with results of meeting, quote in paras 7, 9-16)

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 "pyroprocessing" 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.

"Our new 123 Agreement reflects our special relationship and our responsibilities to protect our mutual interest in ensuring that nuclear power is used for peaceful purposes and in conformity with the terms of our international treaties and our commitments," she added.

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 reported their terms of reference and work plans that outline the principles of their operation and division of responsibilities as well as feasible areas of cooperation.

The working group on spent fuel management, for example, reported plans to continue monitoring progress in the allies' Joint Fuel Cycle Study slated to last through 2020. The study aims to determine the economic and technological feasibility of pyroprocessing. The U.S. has agreed to decide whether to allow South Korea to develop the technology based on the results of the study, but many experts have been skeptical.

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 conventional reprocessing technology because it does not produce pure plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. The U.S. has still raised proliferation concerns.

Along with the joint study, the two sides agreed to invest in a separate project to explore other ways of managing spent nuclear fuel through storage, transportation and disposal. Until now, the allies only had information exchange on 15 technological areas related to the three methods.

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 at home.

The ministry said the session addressed the issue of assured fuel supply through an agreement to share information on the conditions of the global nuclear fuel market and conduct a joint assessment of the possibility of a market disturbance.

Based on that assessment, they would review various bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to ensure a stable fuel supply and measures to support each other, it said.

The next meeting of the high-level commission will be held in the U.S. in the first half of next year.

Earlier in the day, 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.

Yun said the commission's inaugural session carries a 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 from recent U.N. and bilateral sanctions against the regime.

hague@yna.co.kr
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