South Korea admitted to embarrassment but not to wrongdoing as international inspectors investigated the secret enrichment of uranium at government-run nuclear facilities. The government said it was fully cooperating with a team of inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that departed after concluding a week-long inspection. Revelations that scientists in South Korea had engaged in clandestine uranium enrichment in 2000, albeit in microscopic quantities, emerged at a time when Seoul was playing a leading role in efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.
These experiments were done by a small group of scientists for research purposes on a laboratory scale and without the knowledge or authorization of the government of the Republic of Korea. The head of the research institute admitted that the uranium enrichment experiment by South Korean government scientists was conducted three times in 2000 with his approval. And the government of the Republic of Korea did not have an enrichment or reprocessing program at all, and do not have and will not have that enrichment or reprocessing facilities.
One of these conversion activities, which took place at three facilities that had not been declared to the Agency, involved the production of about 150 kilograms of natural uranium metal, a small amount of which, according to the ROK, was later used in the AVLIS experiments. The ROK authorities have pointed out that the uranium enrichment experiments took place in the context of a broader experimental effort to apply AVLIS techniques to a wide range of stable isotopes. According to the ROK, only about 200 milligrams of enriched uranium were produced.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visited three previously undeclared facilities in South Korea. The inspection team visited another facility for which the results of environmental samples had revealed the presence of slightly irradiated depleted uranium with associated plutonium. The ROK authorities informed the Agency that, in the early 1980s, a laboratory scale experiment had been performed at this facility to irradiate 2.5 kilograms of depleted uranium and separate a small amount of plutonium.
News of the experiment prompted nervous reaction from Japan.
The Korean government will take measures to avoid a recurrence of this issue by creating a national center for controlling nuclear material, and educating scientists to remind them of their safeguard obligation; and safeguard agreements mean that even minute amounts of nuclear material must be reported to the IAEA.
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