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South Korea bets big on small reactors in return to nuclear

SK, Samsung see opportunities in President Yoon’s pro-nuclear pivot

South Korean industrial giants like SK and Samsung are stepping up operations in nuclear power, zeroing in on small, easier-to-build reactors, as the country pivots back to nuclear energy under a new president.

SK announced in May a wide-ranging partnership with Bill Gates-founded startup TerraPower with a focus on small reactors, spanning technology development and commercialization. With energy company SK Innovation taking on a central role, SK seeks to harness the group’s expertise in each step, from development to installation to operation.

TerraPower plans to build a midsize next-generation demonstration reactor, slated to come online around 2028, in the state of Wyoming with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are participating in that project.

Small nuclear reactors have attracted attention as a promising path away from fossil fuels. They offer only around 5% the output of standard reactors, allowing for a simpler construction process. Major components can be manufactured in advance and assembled on-site, reducing construction time and upfront costs. The reactors are also considered highly safe.

SK will use the partnership to gain know-how and train specialized staff, hoping to take on small-reactor projects at home as momentum picks up.

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

Samsung Heavy Industries announced in April a deal with Denmark’s Seaborg Technologies to develop floating nuclear 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 big sum, given its parent-only operating profit of 135.2 billion won in fiscal 2021.

Doosan has a capital and business tie-up with U.S.-based 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 SMR field,” Doosan said.

The recent enthusiasm for the atom has been fueled by a policy U-turn by new President Yoon Suk-yeol.

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

The administration of previous President Moon Jae-in halted new projects as it sought to phase out nuclear power. The technology has made up a shrinking share of South Korea’s energy mix, and companies in related industries have foundered.

During the election campaign, Yoon pledged to immediately scrap the phaseout plan and instead make South Korea a nuclear energy powerhouse. Much of the public, worried about the possibility of higher electricity costs, got behind this idea.

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

South Korea’s energy ministry has begun revising the country’s five-year energy plan accordingly. The new version may include a restart of work on reactors at the Shin-Hanul plant — frozen under Moon — and a larger share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.

The sudden shift raises issues of its own, particularly a shortage of the talent needed to implement it after the industry’s chill under Moon.

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

Source: Nikkei Asia