S. Korea renews 'firm commitment' to enriching uranium in talks with U.S.

SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's chief negotiator renewed his "firm commitment" on Monday to enriching uranium and reprocessing nuclear fuel for the nation's civil nuclear energy program as Seoul resumed formal negotiations with Washington aimed at revising a bilateral nuclear accord.

After more than two years of negotiations, South Korea failed to win U.S. permission to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the negotiations. Instead, the allies agreed in late April to extend the current agreement by two more years until March 2016.

Ambassador Park Ro-byug, Seoul's chief negotiator to the talks, and Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary for international security and non-proliferation, launched two days of negotiations in Seoul earlier in the day.

"We have a firm commitment to making progress in revising our agreement," Park told Countryman during his opening remarks.

"I think we have a good common ground for making progress," Park said, adding South Korea is "very much interested in our talks because this agreement is a common goal of our partnership as well as our future prosperity."

"The Korea-U.S. relationship is sometimes described as a linchpin in the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific," Park said. "I hope that the status of the linchpin role would be reflected in revising our agreement."

Countryman said, "The South Korea-U.S. relationship is broad, deep and has been always successful."

"We are committed to finding technical and economic solutions that enhance the relations," Countryman said.

The agreement, last revised in 1974, bans Seoul from reprocessing spent fuel because it could yield plutonium that could be used to build atomic bombs.

Seoul wants Washington to allow it to use a proliferation-resistant technology for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent atomic fuel, but Washington has been reluctant to do so apparently because of proliferation concerns.

In the face of growing nuclear waste stockpiles and its ambition to become a global power in the civilian nuclear industry, South Korea hopes to adopt the so-called pyroprocessing technology, which leaves separated plutonium, the main ingredient in making atomic bombs, mixed with other elements.

South Korea wants the U.S. to allow it to use the new technology because it has to deal with more than 10,000 tons of nuclear waste at storage facilities that are expected to reach capacity by 2016.

Some nonproliferation experts say pyroprocessing is not significantly different from reprocessing, and the plutonium could quickly be turned into weapons-grade material.

Meanwhile, South Korea and the U.S. are set to sign a pact that will allow the two nations to step up their joint research on pyroprocessing technology, said a senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry.

In 2011, Seoul and Washington launched the 10-year joint research project.

"The two nations completed work to adopt the pact," the official said on the condition of anonymity. "The pact will soon come into force after approval from the Cabinet."

If adopted, the pact would enable the International Atomic Energy Agency to guarantee the safety of pyroprocessing technology. Also, it would require South Korea and the U.S. to get each other's approval if they transfer the technology to a third country, according to the official.

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