America has squandered its lead in nuclear-energy technology
In the dazzling sunlight of the United Arab Emirates, 30-story construction cranes twirl in the desert sand as thousands of highly trained, imported workers scurry below. The elaborate dance is choreographed by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), which is seating the containment structure for the first of four nuclear reactors it has contracted to build for the desert kingdom by 2020. A newcomer to the international market, KEPCO was the surprise winner in the bidding four years ago, besting France’s semi-private nuclear giant, Areva, and a consortium of GE and Hitachi.
Now pivot to Washington, where American and Korean diplomats are trying to renegotiate a 1974 treaty, set to expire in 2014, whereby the United States supplies South Korea with nuclear technology. Under this treaty, the U.S. also supplies South Korea with uranium. In 1974, the U.S. was just embarking on a wave of construction that would produce 100 new reactors in 20 years, reactors that still provide 19 percent of our electricity. Today the U.S. has not built a new reactor from the ground up (as opposed to modifying an existing one) in 25 years. The frontiers of nuclear development have moved far beyond America’s borders. Yet State Department officials are still trying to hold South Korea to the terms of the 1974 agreement, which states that the Koreans cannot build their own uranium-enrichment facilities and, more important, cannot reprocess their spent fuel.