The U.N. nuclear watchdog is investigating a secret uranium-enrichment experiment that South Korean scientists conducted four years ago, U.N. and South Korean officials said Thursday.
The single experiment in early 2000 was revealed in a report South Korea presented last month to the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the Science and Technology Ministry said in a statement.
South Korea reported that its “laboratory scale” experiment “involved the production of only milligram quantities of enriched uranium,” the IAEA said in a statement posted on its Web site.
Highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear warheads. But South Korea said Thursday it has no intention of building nuclear bombs and remains committed to international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its weapons development.
“The government will take measures to prevent similar things from happening in the future,” the statement said, adding that a small group of scientists conducted the experiment on their own initiative.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized the secret experiment but praised South Korea for working with a U.N. agency to make sure the program is ended.
“What they had done in the past was activity that should not have occurred,” Boucher said Thursday, speaking in Washington. “It’s activity that must be eliminated, and we are glad that South Korea is working in a transparent manner to do that.”
There was no immediate reaction from communist North Korea, which says it is building a “nuclear deterrent” to counter what it calls plans by the United States and its South Korean ally to unleash a nuclear war on the divided Korean peninsula.
An IAEA investigating team arrived Sunday in South Korea to conduct a weeklong probe into the program, the ministry said.
IAEA report due midmonth
The team will report early next week to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who in turn will present his findings when the agency’s Board of Governors convenes in mid-September.
South Korea said the uranium enrichment took place during experiments using laser technology to separate isotopes. Those experiments were part of the country’s research for domestic production of fuel for its nuclear power plants.
The experiment, conducted in a facility dedicated to research into nuclear fuel, involved separating just 0.01 ounces of uranium, the statement said. The experiment was immediately terminated after it was conducted and the equipment scrapped, according to the ministry.
South Korea said the government only recently found out about the unauthorized experiment, when it prepared a report under the terms of a new, tougher safeguard agreement it signed with the IAEA in February that required it to record activities in the fuel research center.
‘Sincerely honoring our obligations’
“The fact that we have decided to report this faithfully and transparently to the IAEA reflects our commitment to nuclear nonproliferation,” the ministry said. “We are sincerely honoring our obligations for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation.”
South Korea said it remains committed to keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
The revelation comes as South Korea and five other countries are trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. That crisis arose after the North reportedly admitted in 2002 having a secret nuclear program in violation of international agreements.
South Korea launched a secret nuclear weapons program in the 1970s under military dictator Park Chung-hee but abandoned the plan after strong U.S. pressure.
Lacking oil and natural resources, South Korea’s civilian nuclear program today provides more than 40 percent of the country’s energy.