Skip to content

From Self-reliance to Global Ambition:

Korea’s Nuclear Industry Steps onto the World Stage
Sunday, October 18th, 2009
nuclear korea

When the words "nuclear" and "Korea" appear in the same sentence, it is almost certainly in reference to Kim Jong-il's weapons program. Yet, on the other side of the DMZ, South Korea has long powered its bustling cities and heavy industries with atomic energy. After nuclear power fell into worldwide disfavor in the 1980s and 1990s following several high-profile accidents, South Korea has renewed its interest in nuclear energy and has begun efforts to export their expertise in plant construction.

South Korea has very little in the way of domestic fossil fuels, and thus has been interested in nuclear power since the end of the Korean War, joining the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957 and bringing their first test reactor online in 1962. By 1978, the first active plant, Kori-1, began to provide energy to consumers. Today there are 20 reactors in operation around the country, supplying approximately 45 percent of the nation's energy needs. Korea has one of the most centralized nuclear strategies in the world, with only four separate power plants. "Per capita consumption in 2006 was 7,700 kWh, up from 850 kWh/yr in 1980. Over the last three decades, South Korea has enjoyed 8.6 percent average annual growth in GDP, which has caused corresponding growth in electricity consumption - from 33 billion kWh in 1980 to 371 billion kWh in 2006." (World Nuclear Association,

Towards Self-Reliance

Historically, Korea's nuclear energy regime can be understood as a three-stage process. In its infancy, Korea's nuclear program relied entirely on foreign suppliers. The first reactors at Kori were built directly by outside experts. This was necessary as Korea then lacked the requisite skills and education for developing such an industry. Secondly, the so-called component stage, which was marked by domesticizing the nuclear power industry with utility concerns playing major roles in shaping strategy. Finally, Korea has entered a self-reliance stage where most or all development and research is homegrown. This stage has been marked by the successful completion of local projects such as the processing of the Canadian-built CANDU reactor's spent fuel, PWR fuel technology and the Korea Standard National Power Plant technology. The final key to Korea's self-reliance was achieved in May 2008, when Doosan Heavy Industries completed a man-machine interface for nuclear instrumentation and control.

Korea's progress in such matters has reached the point where the country may be entering a fourth stage, the era of exporting nuclear expertise, as Korean companies begin competing for plant building contracts in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Korean government and public power utilities plan to invest 4.7 trillion won (US$3.68 billion) in 2009 and up to $40 billion through 2030 to dramatically increase domestic capacity. This investment will reduce Korea's dependence on importing energy from abroad. Substantial investments in research and development are also being made. Several projects are underway both in Korea and jointly with the United States. Test and demonstration reactors using new or refined techniques as well as a more efficient use of spent fuel are major priorities. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) is the primary agency for R&D.

In June 2009, KAERI won three contracts from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) consortium - made up of the European Union, the United States, Russia, India, and other nations - worth approximately 410,000 euro. ITER is a series of projects devoted to creating a full-scale demonstration fusion power plant in the 2030s and a 1,000MW commercial facility around 2040. Fusion reactors are a key development for nuclear power going forward, as the radioactive material produced from current fission reactors is one of the central drawbacks to atomic energy. Korea will be researching tritium analysis, movement and other technologies related to the radioactive isotope.

"KAERI winning the projects proves that our scientists have come a long way and are ready to contribute more in the advancement of nuclear fusion technology," said KAERI official Moon Hae-ju to the Korea Times.

One KAERI project is the development of a System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor, or SMART. SMART is a 330MWt pressurized water reactor, designed to generate up to 100 MWe for thermal applications like seawater desalination. Such a plant would have a 60-year lifespan. The licensing of the SMART should begin in 2012. SMART will provide a more cost-effective and safe reactor. "The enhancement of safety is realized by incorporating inherent safety-improving features and reliable passive safety systems. The improvement in the economics is achieved through a system simplification, component modularization, construction time reduction, and increased plant availability." (The Promises and Challenges of Future Reactor System Developments, KAERI)

Other projects include the eventual development of a sodium-cooled fast reactor, which is jointly supported by the U.S.; advanced spent fuel conditioning process (ACP), also in conjunction with the U.S., though there has been some uncertainty in the past about continued collaboration (as of 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy included the project in its budget for pyroprocessing research); development of Direct Use of Spent PWR fuel in CANDU Reactors (DUPIC); liquid metal reactors; increased use of lasers in various processes; and research reactors.

The DUPIC project is in conjunction with Canada and is Korea's case study for the IAEA's International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles initiative. By taking spent fuel from light water reactors, crushing it and burning off a large portion of the fission products, fuel for pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR) can be produced, containing more than twice the amount of natural uranium in fuel typically used in PHWRs.

Exporting Expertise

From the 1970s to this decade, nuclear energy has not been a priority for most nations. From the high cost of building a power station, to safety concerns - especially following the events at Three Mile Island in the U.S. and Chernobyl in the Ukraine - and the "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) protests, there was little political will to proceed with new facilities. But the tide has turned in the past decade. Increasingly dire fears of global warming due to greenhouse gases has given nuclear energy a second wave of popularity. According to IAEA figures, nuclear power emits 10 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh), solar energy (57 g/kWh), liquefied natural gas (549 g/kWh), oil (782 g/kWh) and coal (991 g/kWh). It is clear that nuclear energy is an essential strategy to meet the world's increasing power needs without contributing to global warming. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear plants may contribute about 200 gigawatts of the 4,800 gigawatts of new capacity needed by 2030.

The Middle East has emerged as a substantial market for nuclear power development. The United Arab Emirates plans to build between 12 and 16 nuclear units over the next 20 years, a huge nuclear power market whose value is estimated at between $40 billion and $60 billion. In June 2009, then-South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo and U.A.E. vice president Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum signed an MOU on nuclear cooperation. The U.A.E. is on track to become the second country in the Middle East to produce nuclear power. Korean companies hope to be closely involved in this historic process.

As of September, the U.A.E. has not announced the winner of the contracts for the building of their first reactor facility. A consortium of French companies lead by Areva, a Korean consortium including KEPCO, Hyundai Engineering and Construction and Samsung C&T Corporation, and a Japanese and American partnership between General Electric and Hitachi have been vying for this deal. Early in the process, KEPCO was considered by many industry analysts to be the frontrunner. Whether the Korean company wins or not, the fact that they have been viewed as a major competitor to the long established companies from Europe and North America is a considerable feat in itself.

Jordan, likewise, has signed agreements with several countries including South Korea. The Kingdom received an offer from KEPCO for light water reactors, desalinization plants and related infrastructure. Other agreements have been signed with other countries. With these agreements, Jordan hopes to be able to develop its nuclear energy program without large-scale U.S. involvement.

Saudi Arabia is moving forward with nuclear power ambitions, followed by Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. France has signed agreements with Morocco and Qatar to begin developing their domestic nuclear programs. Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen have also expressed interest in pursuing nuclear energy. Each of these countries represents lucrative markets for Korean companies, though concerns about the proliferation of nuclear capability must be considered. Egypt, Libya and Algeria have been accused of violating proliferation protocols in the past.

In August, Nuclear Power of India Ltd (NPCIL) and KEPCO announced that they will begin a study into the feasibility of licensing and exporting Korean-built reactors to India. Russia, France and the U.S. have exported facilities to India in the past, but with India's rapidly increasing power demands, more power will be needed. The study will examine KEPCO's APR-1400 reactor model, which has been offered in various markets, including Belarus and Poland. MOUs have been signed between NPCIL and KEPCO regarding the development of nuclear projects, operation & maintenance, nuclear fuel and other topics. However, until there is a bilateral agreement between the governments of India and South Korea, no transfer of equipment or knowledge can be conducted. A licensing relationship between Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) and Westinghouse may need to be resolved as well, as 5 percent of the components for the Korea Standard Nuclear Plant (KSNP) OPR-1000 and APR-1400 reactors rely on Westinghouse intellectual property.

A complication to expanding civilian nuclear power use is the Korea-U.S. pact, negotiated in 1974 and expiring in 2014, and the Inter-Korean Declaration of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1992. The pact dictates how South Korea can use nuclear technology, especially the reprocessing of spent fuel. These restrictions were in place to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. However, waste material from Korea's 20 reactors will strain storage capacity by 2016. If South Korea is allowed to reprocess spent fuel, 95 percent of spent fuel can be recycled, drastically reducing waste. Thus far, the U.S. has not been seen as amenable to granting South Korea the same exemptions granted to India, Japan and the EU. Talks will begin in the coming months to begin resolving this sensitive issue.

Senior Vice President Chang Moon-hee of KAERI said, "Korea will be ready for technological self-sufficiency to become a nuclear power exporter by 2012, but a huge number of such projects must be mandated by national political and diplomatic support."

Login or register to tag items

Open source newspaper and magazine cms software