South Korea bets big on small reactors in return to nuclear

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SEOUL — South Korean industrial giants like SK and Samsung are stepping up their nuclear operations, focusing on smaller reactors that are easier to build, as the country returns to nuclear power under a new president.

SK announced in May a far-reaching partnership with the Bill Gates-founded start-up TerraPower, focused on small reactors, covering technology development and commercialization. With energy company SK Innovation playing a central role, SK seeks to harness the group’s expertise at every stage, from development to installation and operation.

TerraPower plans to build a next-generation, mid-size demonstration reactor, slated for commissioning around 2028, in the state of Wyoming with funding from the US Department of Energy. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are participating in this project.

Small nuclear reactors have attracted attention as a promising route away from fossil fuels. They offer only about 5% of the efficiency of standard reactors, which allows for a simpler construction process. Major components can be fabricated in advance and assembled on site, reducing construction time and upfront costs. Reactors are also considered highly safe.

SK will use this partnership to acquire know-how and train specialist personnel, hoping to undertake small reactor projects at home as momentum builds.

Hyundai Engineering has also set its sights on small modular reactors and other next-generation nuclear systems. It set up a dedicated team of around 70 design and project management staff in May. The objective is to develop its own SMR technology.

Samsung Heavy Industries announced in April an agreement with Denmark’s Seaborg Technologies to develop floating nuclear power plants, applying existing shipbuilding technology to build a new type of reactor.

Doosan Enerbility, a leader in South Korea’s nuclear industry, is looking to SMRs for a comeback. SMRs are a central part of the company’s plans to invest 5 trillion won ($4 billion) in new energy technologies over the next five years – a significant sum, given its operating profit of 135.2 billion won for fiscal 2021.

Doosan has a capital and commercial link with the American company NuScale Power, under which it will supply key equipment for NuScale’s SMRs.

“It will be an alliance between Korean and American companies in the field of SMRs,” Doosan said.

Recent enthusiasm for the atom has been fueled by a political reversal by new President Yoon Suk-yeol.

South Korea’s first nuclear power plant entered commercial operation in 1978. The country now has 24 operating reactors, generating 27.3% of its electricity in 2021.

Former President Moon Jae-in’s administration has halted new projects as it seeks to phase out nuclear power. Technology has accounted for a shrinking share of South Korea’s energy mix, and companies in related industries have foundered.

During the election campaign, Yoon pledged to immediately abandon the elimination plan and turn South Korea into a nuclear power plant. Much of the public, concerned about the possibility of higher electricity costs, supported this idea.

After winning the election, Yoon announced plans to resume construction of new reactors as well as extend the life of existing facilities. His administration also plans to export 10 reactors by 2030, a plan that could be boosted in Eastern Europe as countries there shun Russian-made equipment since the invasion of Ukraine.

South Korea’s energy ministry has begun to revise the country’s five-year energy plan accordingly. The new version could include a restart of work on the reactors of the Shin-Hanul power plant – frozen under the Moon – and a greater share of nuclear energy in the country’s energy mix.

The sudden change raises its own issues, particularly a shortage of talent needed to implement it after the industry cooled under Moon.

The number of people employed by nuclear suppliers rose from 22,355 in 2016 to 19,449 in 2019, according to government data. New enrollments in nuclear engineering programs at universities fell from 802 students to 524 during the same period.

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