South Korea's Nuclear Power Export Ambitions

We examine South Korea's path to its current moment of opportunity in the nuclear power reactor export market, coinciding with a global need for carbon-free power.

Whang Joo-ho, CEO of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power speaks at a lectern
Whang Joo-ho, CEO of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), speaking on Small Modular Reactors

This article is part of Focus on Korea's continuing series on South Korean industry.

South Korea's nuclear power industry stands at a moment of opportunity, with the recent selection of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) as the preferred bidder for the Czech Republic's nuclear power plant project marking a potential turning point. This development comes after years of uncertainty and policy shifts that have tested the resilience of the country's nuclear sector. The project, valued at approximately 24 trillion won ($17.3 billion), represents not just a significant economic opportunity but also a strategic foothold in the European nuclear market. As we delve into the implications of this contract, it's essential to understand the context of South Korea's nuclear journey and the global dynamics shaping the industry's future.

The roots of South Korea's nuclear ambitions trace back to the 1970s when the country embarked on an ambitious plan to develop nuclear energy as a cornerstone of its industrialization strategy. Over the decades, South Korea has built a robust domestic nuclear fleet, with 24 reactors currently in operation providing about a third of the country's electricity. This domestic experience has been the foundation for South Korea's nuclear technology capabilities, culminating in the development of the Advanced Power Reactor (APR) series. The APR1400, the flagship model, gained international recognition with its deployment in the United Arab Emirates' Barakah nuclear power plant, South Korea's first major international nuclear project.

However, the industry faced a significant setback during the Moon Jae-in administration (2017-2022), which pursued a nuclear phase-out policy. This policy, driven by safety concerns and a push towards renewable energy, led to the cancellation of planned nuclear projects and a freeze on new developments. The impact was profound, with the nuclear industry experiencing a brain drain and a loss of momentum in both domestic and international markets. The policy also raised questions about South Korea's long-term commitment to nuclear energy, potentially jeopardizing its position in the global market.

Universities are reporting increased interest in nuclear engineering programs, and companies are ramping up their R&D efforts [...] with increased focus on areas like small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced fuel cycles.

The election of President Yoon Suk-yeol in 2022 marked a sharp reversal in South Korea's nuclear policy. Yoon's administration has made the revival of the nuclear industry a key policy objective, setting an ambitious goal of exporting 10 nuclear reactors by 2030. This shift comes at a time when the global nuclear power market is experiencing renewed interest, driven by concerns over energy security and the need for low-carbon electricity sources to combat climate change. Countries across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are reevaluating their energy strategies, creating opportunities for established nuclear technology providers like South Korea.

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Jamie Larson