Future of Nuclear Energy in Emerging Markets: South Korea

This story is part of an ongoing Forum on Energy series on nuclear energy in emerging markets across the globe. See more entries here.


Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

South Korea’s civil nuclear program is predominantly home grown. Its high-tech reactors — with solid safety reputations — make the country’s technology a strong competitor in the world of exporting. With a set goal of exporting 80 nuclear reactors by 2030, as well as the high operational capacity of its APR-1400 reactors, South Korea is a formidable rival to other nuclear technology exporters such as Japan, Russia and France.

Nuclear energy has been a strategic priority for the country, as it lacks the natural energy resources — such as oil and natural gas — that benefit many of its neighbors. It has embraced nuclear energy as a domestic base load power, with its attendant benefits of low carbon emissions. But recent scandals of mismanagement in nuclear facilities have the public concerned about nuclear power’s dangers. Public concern, along with the accident in Fukushima, is enough to slow future plans of nuclear energy growth.


High energy consumption in South Korea is an outgrowth of an economy that has been booming for decades. Soaring electricity demand is led by residential consumers, followed by industry and commercial clients. In part, artificially deflated electricity prices — the lowest among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries — have contributed to demand. 


Electricity supply has not been able to keep pace. Over the last few years the country has operated under marginal reserves as low as 3.8 percent. Unexpected circumstances such as fluctuations in weather or plant shutdowns have caused government-mandated energy efficiencies and rolling blackouts.

Electricity is generated primarily from conventional thermal power and nuclear energy. Thermal power generates more than 60 percent of the country’s electricity, most of which is derived from imported coal, gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG). South Korea is the second-largest LNG importer next to Japan and third-largest coal importer. In part due to its lack of resources, South Korea is looking to grow its production of renewable resources, mostly through nuclear energy but through also wind, solar and sources.

Nuclear energy accounts for nearly 30 percent of consumed electricity and this percentage is expected to grow. At present the country generates 20.5 gigawatt electrical (GWe) from 23 reactors at four nuclear power stations. The reactors run at 96.5 percent capacity. While the concentration of reactors creates efficiencies in maintenance and lowers cost, it also reduces grid efficiencies.


Business Monitor International (BMI) estimates that from 2013 to 2022 total generation capacity will grow 4.3 percent to hit 525.5 terawatt hours of total generation. Within that, growth in the nuclear industry is projected at 11.5 percent. The government will go ahead with projects that are currently in the pipeline. BMI speculates that while growth will continue at an annual average of 5.1 percent, most will occur in the latter half of the next decade. Of the planned-for additional 11 to 14 reactors, BMI guesses that 9 will be built, on the assumption that public mistrust as a result of the scandals could slow down future growth.

In addition to nuclear power, 1 percent of the energy mix comes from hydropower. The government has pushed to double renewable energy production, but limited sites and seasonal variations in weather mean hydroelectric energy is not the most efficient of effective of choices. South Korea plans to expand offshore wind energy to 2.5 billion kW by 2019.

Sources: EIA, PowerMag.com, Business Monitor International




South Korea began its nuclear activities when it became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957. In 1958 the Atomic Energy Law was passed and in 1959 the Office of Atomic Energy was established by the government. The first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality in South Korea was a small research unit, in 1962.

Ten years later, the country began construction on its first nuclear power plant—Kori 1, a Westinghouse unit built on turnkey contract. It started up in 1977 and achieved commercial operation in 1978. This was immediately followed by a burst of activity, with eight reactors under construction in the early 1980s.

South Korea’s first plant became operational in 1978, with technical support from the United States.

The U.S.-South Korea 123c agreement was reached in 1973, with a 30-year expiration date. The following year, the agreement was extended by 11 months, to March 19, 2014. A new agreement has been under discussion since 2003, but negotiations failed in 2013, and instead an additional two-year extension was put in place, pushing the expiration date to March 19, 2016.

The 123 agreement negotiations broke down over whether South Korea should be allowed enrichment and reprocessing rights. The United States is concerned over South Korea’s prior interest in nuclear weapons acquisition, historic proliferation risks on the Korean peninsula and the 1992 denuclearization pledge by South Korea.

South Korea’s request for advanced consent to work on enrichment and reprocessing activities is two-fold. First it would like to enrich uranium in order to capture up to 20 percent of the global civilian nuclear market by offering a comprehensive package of nuclear technology and fuel supply services. South Korea also argues that it needs reprocessing capacity in order to deal with its nuclear waste problem. It has almost reached its storage capacity and not yet located additional storage capacity to ensure that the reactors can keep running.

South Korea argues that this form of processing is proliferation resistant, but the United States counters that the process still leads to weapons grade plutonium. Moreover, the United States does not believe that South Korea needs to package the sale of reactors with enriched uranium. Even though the situation is not resolved, further negotiations over this issue have been postponed for two years.

Sources: World Nuclear News (1,2), Brookings

Potential Partners

Domestic nuclear plant construction is dominated by South Korean companies, which have demonstrated technological mastery in the field. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power company (KHNP), a subsidiary of KEPCO, will build two new plants—Shun Kori 3 and 4. Work on the project began in 2009 and will include Korean-made APR-1400 reactor technology and will produce 1.35 GW each. The construction is worth $6.3 billion, of which a $1.2 billion contract was won by Doosan Heavy Industries and $300 million was won by Westinghouse for components. A Hyundai consortium is set to build the units, but discovery of fake certified cables will delay the beginning of commercial operation, which was slated in September 2013 at the earliest. 

The construction at Sinuljin 1 through 4 have been delayed because KHNP has been unable to secure the requisite approvals, and Sinkori 7 and 8 are cancelled because KHNP could not secure the land.

South Korea is an emerging international leader in nuclear technology. In December 2009, KEPCO won a $20 billion contract to build four APR 1400 MW  reactors in the United Arab Emirates. It has also reached agreements to build a research reactor in Jordan and is pursuing activities in Finland, Hungary, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, India and China. Malaysia has also expressed interest in Korean technology.

Sources: World Nuclear News (1,2,3,4)


In November 2012 more than 5,000 small components used in five reactors had not been properly certified. It turns out that eight suppliers falsified more than 60 warranties. A year later, counterfeit parts and fake quality assurance certificates were used in other nuclear power plants, leading to the shutdown of two plants, whole two others were placed offline until replacements could be put in place. Consumers were asked to reduce consumption in order to avoid blackouts.

Source: World Nuclear News


Nuclear energy technology is projected to remain a priority for South Korea, both in terms of domestic energy security and as an engine for export. Civil nuclear manufacturers should regard South Korea’s domestic production as a potential market for partnerships, but the country will increasingly become a strong competitor for export in emerging nuclear markets.