Senior Korean sources told the Independent on Sunday yesterday that the country could agree to buy the plutonium - from the controversial Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield - if North Korea built its own nuclear bomb, a step they believe is imminent.
Last week, the long-running international crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions was sharply heightened when President Clinton bluntly warned its President, Kim Il Sung, not to attack South Korea.
British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the state-owned company that operates Sellafield, confirmed that it was mounting a sales drive in South Korea even though the country is on the Government's danger list for exports causing 'strategic and proliferation concerns'.
It wants to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the country, which has one of the world's fastest-growing nuclear programmes, extract plutonium from it and return this in the form of new fuel.
BNFL's plan will heighten concerns that the pounds 2.8bn Thorp plant will promote nuclear proliferation at a particularly sensitive time. Ministers are expected to announce in the next few weeks that the plant can start up, but allow a delay of 28 days during which objectors will seek to overturn the decision through a judicial review.
The plutonium would be mixed with uranium to make mixed oxide (MOX) fuel to power reactors. BNFL says that the plutonium could not be separated from the fuel and made into nuclear weapons without 'considerable expertise' but independent experts say that this would be easy for South Korea.
Jeong Woo Kil, a senior counsellor to South Korea's Deputy Prime Minister and senior fellow at the Research Institute for National Unification, said BNFL, which has an office in Seoul, 'wants to sell us MOX'. Emphasising that he was speaking from the Research Institute and not as an official government spokesman, he said that the country was 'very reluctant' to buy MOX but this could change if North Korea got the bomb.
'We would not have any other option,' he said.
Tae Woo Kim, who is in charge of nuclear studies at the South Korean Institute for Defence Analysis, said he believed that North Korea already had nuclear weapons and added: 'We want MOX fuel because that is our future energy.'
Both Mr Kil and Mr Kim said that BNFL was also adding to tension in the area by reprocessing fuel from Japan and planning to send back the extracted plutonium. This would greatly increase if Thorp operates: independent estimates suggest that Britain's plutonium exports to Japan would reach 26 tons, enough for 2,600 bombs, if the plant is approved. Mr Kim said he believed that Japan had 'hidden military ambitions' for its plutonium.
BNFL's sales drive is beginning to run into opposition. Heo Nyol Kwon, of Kafe, the South Korean environmental group, said yesterday that a demonstration was planned for this month because 'it is increasing tension in this region'.
David Kay, who led the international drive to dismantle Iraq's nuclear programme - achieving international prominence when he was surrounded by Saddam Hussein's troops in a car park for several days - told the Independent on Sunday: 'Great efforts should be made to avoid any use of plutonium on the Korean peninsula.'
He said that South Korea could pose a much greater problem than its northern neighbour because it was wealthy enough to have 'a first- class nuclear weapons programme'. Expert estimates suggest that the country's spent nuclear fuel now contains enough plutonium for 1,000 bombs, after reprocessing.
Senior United States administration officials expressed concern at the situation.
The US, which supplies South Korea with its original nuclear fuel, can stop it being reprocessed, but Paul Leventhal, head of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington said that in the end it would have to give way and allow reprocessing.
Last week, President Clinton made clear his displeasure over Thorp, but declined to ask Britain to scrap it.
BNFL said that any business it did with South Korea would have to be approved by the British government.
Korean crisis, page 16
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