"Does the US want to treat us as a criminal?" asks Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "Our concern is not to build a nuclear bomb, but how to dispose of spent fuel rods. If the US government continues to oppose us, that will hurt our sentiment."
Koreans try to allay suspicions. "We do not want to use the word 'reprocessing,' " says Choi Jung-bae, director of the nuclear policy division at the Ministry of Science and Technology. "We prefer to say, 'recycling' or 'reused.' "
The difference is more than semantic. "We do not want to produce pure plutonium," says Mr. Choi. "The purpose of recycling is to get only useful elements in spent fuel," including enriched uranium, in a process called pyroprocessing.
At the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in Daejeon, about 80 miles south of Seoul, scientists call pyroprocessing "a long-term solution" for recycling spent fuel rods without producing weapons-grade plutonium. "The point is, pyroprocessing cannot recover plutonium," says Lee Han-soo, director of nuclear fuel cycle process development. "It cannot compare with normal reprocessing."
Pyroprocessing, say engineers, will make maximum use of the spent fuel rods while vastly reducing the need for waste storage space.
Lee Kwang-seok, director for strategy and international studies, says pyroprocessing, first developed in the US, is "more economic, more problematic-resistant, and has more safeguard ability" than reprocessing systems in use in Japan and France.