Nuclear, Reactors

Market Overview: The Outlook for the Korean Nuclear Power Industry

Issue 5 and Volume 6.

 Courtesy: Shutterstock
Courtesy: Shutterstock

A leader has stumbled. What’s the future?

By Bill Linton, Principal, Linton Consulting

The Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea, has been a growth story for nuclear power in recent decades. Not only has in-country nuclear construction continued throughout the time when North America and Western Europe did not grow, but technology advancement and a government-level commitment to export has propelled ROK into an emerging position in the global nuclear industry, challenging rivals in several countries.

The story of nuclear power in Asia, overall, has been one of consistency and growth during the first decades of the 21st Century. Japan, China, India and South Korea have been leaders in nuclear construction and technology development. In the future, they plan to be leaders in export also.

In 2009, Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) won the competition to provide and build four new nuclear power units in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first of many anticipated units to be constructed in the Middle East in the coming decades. Its APR1400 is now considered a leading design for the future in Asia, as well as other global locations.

Now the bad news. Over the past year, rumors of safety-violation cover-ups and safety culture issues have surfaced. A CEO of Korean Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) resigned over this issue. Then in late 2012, problems with nuclear plant component certifications surfaced. Subsequent news has revealed that the extent of these problems was worse than first thought and some five or more plants have been taken off-line. resulting in electric power shortages through a serious summer heat wave with harsh results. In early October it was announced that some 100 personnel have been indicted for falsifying documentation.

This article further examines the history, current state, and future of nuclear power for the Republic of Korea.


A brief review of Korean history offers a helpful perspective on the story of nuclear there. In 1910, a united Korea (1897-1910) was conquered by Japan and became part of the Japanese Empire through 1945 when Japan was defeated by Allied Forces at the conclusion of World War II. In 1948, the Republic of Korea (South) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) were formed. At that time, North Korea was dominated by the Soviet Union and South Korea by the U.S. In 1950, the Korean War erupted when North Korean forces invaded the South. UN and Chinese forces also entered the war, which lasted until 1953 when an armistice was reached. While tensions between North and South Korea continue until the present day, much has changed.

Both North and South Korea have had nuclear programs since the 1950’s and 1960’s. North Korea continues nuclear development focused on weapons to this day, while South Korea has a very progressive commercial nuclear power program for generation of electric power in-country and for technology export. While early reactors included PWRs (Westinghouse, Framatome, Combustion Engineering) and PHWR’s (AECL), South Korea began developing its own light water reactors through a government driven nuclear technology self-reliance program since the mid-1980s. These investments have led to the APR1400, which is now being utilized in-country as well as exported to the UAE as the first commercial reactors in the Middle East.

North Korea still has no operating nuclear power plants, despite historical efforts by an international consortium called Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to supply two 1000 MWe LWRs in return for abandoning nuclear weapons development. According to Dr. HanKwon Choi1, an executive with U.S.- based URS Corp. who was a Special Technical Advisor in that program, the LWR Project sponsored by the U.S., Japan, and the European Union was halted in 2006 due to North Korea’s clandestine nuclear weapons program discovered in the middle of the project.

South Korea now has 23 operating units and five under construction, with an additional six units planned. These plants generate some 30 percent of the country’s electric power today and the national energy plan calls for nuclear to grow to 60 percent by 2035.

A profile of the two countries is useful here. North Korea has a population of about 25 million; South Korea’s is 50 million. South Korea’s GDP has reached some $1.6 trillion with strong growth rates. GDP is not reported for North Korea, but believed to be in the $40-50 billion range, with little or no growth. While Koreans consume significant energy resources, the countries are energy-poor. Some coal deposits exist, but there is little indigenous oil and gas. As a result, nuclear power is very important.

South Korea’s vibrant economy has seen electricity consumption growth rates that have exceeded 8 percent for some years and are expected to continue in the 2.5 percent range through 2020.

Today, South Korea’s 23 licensed plants comprise a strong nuclear industry that has a good safety and reliability record and operates at high utilization rates. The government-controlled (51 percent owned) KEPCO owned all of the fossil, nuclear and hydropower operating plants until a few years ago. A government-restructuring program moved the operating plants under KHNP. Other organizations affiliated with the industry include KEPCO NF (nuclear fuel), KEPCO Engineering and Construction (previously KOPEC), and Doosan, a private company and equipment provider, as well as several major construction companies such as Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo, Dongah, etc. The Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS) and Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) are two other important government-controlled nuclear entities that are responsible for nuclear regulation and R&D.

As its nuclear industry has developed, South Korea has been growing a strong and highly self-sufficient nuclear supply chain. Companies such as Doosan are able to provide large forgings and many other components required by its industry.

The government sees the potential for nuclear power technology to provide for the country’s energy needs as well as a growing export. With this background, we see that it was quite a victory for South Korea’s government-sponsored KEPCO to win in the competition for the UAE’s first four units in 2009.

The Crisis

This history helps to understand the seriousness of the recent crisis in South Korea’s nuclear industry over both safety culture and nuclear component certifications.

Troubles began to surface in South Korea’s industry in early 2012 when it was discovered that a safety-related incident occurred at the Kori Unit 1 NPP due to a worker not following procedures. Further, a manager deleted the records in order to avoid reporting the incident. South Korea’s nuclear regulator brought charges against the plant owner, KHNP, leading to the resignation of its CEO. Organizations such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have expressed concerns over safety culture issues in a number of countries and offer help to their members, including KHNP. While the details of such discussions are confidential, it is clear that KHNP, WANO, and IAEA are actively addressing the problems.

If these troubles were not enough, in May 2012, renewed regulatory scrutiny further uncovered a number of component certification issues, called “forged certifications,” in multiple South Korean plants. These discoveries have resulted in taking a series of plants offline for inspections and replacement of parts. However, it is not an issue of substandard quality components and parts, but possibly a matter of commercial grade dedication, that is, of certifications and documentation. At least five plants have been taken offline, and some remained so during the summer months of 2013, creating significant electricity shortages and difficulties for the population during the hot, humid summer. The public is being asked to conserve electricity by avoiding use of air conditioning, for example.

Components affected include cabling, and reportedly over 200 others ranging from fuses and cooling fans to switches. Many have been called non-safety-related parts installed in the plants over a 10-year period. Certification of components is a key part of the safety/quality strategy for the nuclear industry. Even if it is only a problem of falsified documentation, there are serious implications. As recently as October 2013, South Korea has indicted over 100 personnel for falsifying documentation. These include 277 forged quality control certificates affecting components 20 reactors.

While most do not expect these developments to halt the growth of South Korea’s nuclear industry, it has become a time of introspection and correction of regulatory and compliance problems, perhaps analogous to those in Japan following Fukushima. Japan decided to completely restructure its nuclear regulator over the past few years due to lessons learned from the Fukushima accident.

Bi-Lateral Nuclear Agreement

On another issue, South Korea is facing a renegotiation of its bi-lateral nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. The U.S. maintains bi-lateral nuclear agreements (1-2-3 Agreements) with over 20 countries. South Korea and the U.S. first signed this agreement in 1956 and while a few revisions have occurred, this agreement was scheduled to expire in 2014. A two-year extension was agreed upon earlier this year to allow further consideration of a desire by South Korea to liberalize the agreement’s terms. (eds. note: The U.S. House on Sept. 18 approved extending the agreement until mid-March 2016).

The difficult issues have to do with spent fuel management, among others. South Korea has a growing inventory of spent fuel that is reaching maximum capacity and the country must take steps to deal with this in the near future. Its options for storing spent fuel are growing more limited and the country wants to explore a form of mechanical separation for partial reuse of fissile materials in spent fuels. Further, in seeking to become a full service supplier, South Korea wants advance agreement for future activities.

Export Successes

South Korea has been aggressively marketing its reactor designs and capabilities in many regions where nuclear power is being considered. As mentioned already, its greatest success was KEPCO’s selection by UAE in 2009 to build four APR1400 units at their Barakah Nuclear site in the Middle East.

The schedule is to bring units 1-4 online, one each year from 2017 through 2020. Site and concrete work are now well along and Unit 1 is rising out of the desert. A number of unique challenges had to be met by all project partners. The APR1400 design had to be adapted to both the unique climate of the Middle East and to the desert site. The challenges of summer heat, desert sand, and warmer-than-typical cooling water were not trivial for the KEPCO design team. The projects are moving forward aggressively.

In August this year, another breakthrough was announced. KAERI’s 30 MWt research reactor design was selected by the country of Jordan to be built north of Amman as part of the Jordan Research and Training Reactor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. Daewoo Engineering will be overseeing the project and completion is scheduled for 2016. South Korea hopes that this project will be a precursor to the development of two new commercial nuclear units for the country to be operating by 2020 and 2025, respectively.


The amazing growth and progress of South Korea as a contributor to the world economy in multiple industries such as electronics, telecommunications, automotive, and now to nuclear power, is clear. Not only has the country seen significant growth in nuclear power on the home front, it is now seeing success in the acceptance of its nuclear technology outside of Korea.

The country’s energy policy strongly favors nuclear. While public opinion is not as strong a force there as in some other democratic nations, there is a growing anti-nuclear sentiment and the voice of the people is gaining greater influence. Nevertheless, the South Korean public has generally favored nuclear power. While it is certainly possible that the winds of change could slow the growth of nuclear in South Korea, at this point, it seems unlikely.

According to Dr. Choi of URS Corp., South Korea lacks other energy resources and has no choice but to construct more nuclear plants. For this reason, “It is very important for South Korea to address these current issues quickly and regain the full support of the public.”

While recent challenges are serious, having witnessed South Korea’s amazing progress, it would be quite a surprise if the country does not quickly overcome these and move on to even greater success.

Author: Bill Linton is Principal of Linton Consulting, a professional practice that is active in energy, power, nuclear, and manufacturing. Linton’s ongoing Strategic View process has focused on nuclear for the past 5 years. Strategic View involves ongoing monitoring of industries through confidential executive interviews, roundtables, tours, and conference activities

Dr. Choi stated that statements attributed to him are his personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of URS Corp.

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