- Nuclear Energy
- Expert Workshop Series
South Korea began its nuclear energy development by borrowing heavily from American technology – its first commercial power plant was built as a turnkey project from Westinghouse in the late 1970s. Decades later, Korea has become a global leader in nuclear energy, and the US and ROK continue to enjoy a close partnership on various nuclear energy projects and issues.
In recent years, R&D collaboration between the US and South Korea has centered on the issue of pyroprocessing and Korean aspirations to develop a closed fuel cycle. While Korean pyroprocessing research was initially encouraged by the US during the Bush Administration, concerns about the proliferation resistance of pyroprocessing halted cooperation in this area around 2008. Nevertheless, in 2011, the US and ROK agreed upon starting the Joint Fuel Cycle Studies (JFCS), a ten year cooperative R&D arrangement, to research the feasibility and suitability of pyroprocessing, safeguards and security of nuclear material, and alternative fuel cycle options for Korea. Although the two countries have collaborated on a wide range of subjects, including waste storage and disposal, environmental protection, safety, and regulatory matters, the predominant focus has been on the development of a fast reactor fuel cycle utilizing pyroprocessing to recover energy from spent fuel. The International Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (I-NERI), which began in the early 2000s, has fostered over 40 collaborative research projects between Korea and the US, with most of the current projects on next generation reactors and advanced fuel cycles. Within the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), an endeavor to organize and coordinate international research efforts on future reactor concepts, US work with Korea has concentrated primarily on very high temperature reactors (VHTR) and sodium fast reactors, one of the key elements of Korea’s envisioned closed fuel cycle.
Private sector and industry cooperation between Korea and the US has also been quite extensive. While Korea was dependent upon American technology during the early stages of its nuclear energy program, it has steadily developed a self-sufficient and advanced nuclear industry throughout decades of collaboration with US partners. Korea’s history of work with Bechtel is illustrative of the country’s nuclear maturation. Although Bechtel had to assume responsibility for construction and engineering in its early projects in Korea, in its latest collaborations, it has only provided consulting services to its Korean counterparts. Through the years, Bechtel has imparted considerable expertise to its Korean partners, allowing them to develop greater independence. For instance, when Bechtel assisted Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) with its first power uprate program in 2003, it also helped train Korean personnel so that future uprate work could be performed by KHNP. As the Korean nuclear industry continues to develop, exchanges and ties with the US will likely deepen. For example, KEPCO Nuclear Fuel, which had once imported all of its technology from abroad, is now developing its own advanced fuels and seeks to export them to the US market.
While continued US-South Korean nuclear energy R&D and industrial collaboration is to be expected, some future uncertainties remain. In addition to disputes over the proliferation resistance of pyroprocessing, there have been debates on where spent fuel separation in a Korean closed fuel cycle would take place, as well as disagreements on the economic feasibility of deploying such a fuel cycle. Given the increasing advancement and autonomy of the Korean nuclear industry, there is also considerable ambiguity about when certain Korean nuclear technologies will be free from US controls, which has been compounded by Korean calls for nuclear sovereignty. Answers to such questions will likely shape the ROK-US nuclear energy partnership for the years and decades to come.