- Nuclear Energy
- Expert Workshop Series
The US-South Korea civil nuclear relationship is one that will likely help shape the future of global nuclear power. If managed and cultivated carefully, the partnership will be instrumental in setting universal standards for safety, security, and nonproliferation, thereby promoting the prudent and peaceful expansion of nuclear energy throughout the world.
In spite of the Fukushima accident, the growth of nuclear power worldwide continues apace—outside of Japan and a number of European nations, the rate of nuclear power plant construction remains unabated and countries that have expressed interest in developing commercial nuclear programs have been steadfast in their aspirations. While low natural gas prices, waste management issues, and nonproliferation concerns present some worries for the future of nuclear energy, the horizontal and vertical expansion of commercial nuclear power appears inevitable; rapidly expanding energy consumption in the developing world has made nuclear energy an imperative, rather than merely an option, in providing clean, reliable electricity that can sustain economic growth in emerging markets. The manner in which the US manages this expansion is supremely vital in assuring that future nuclear plants are safe, secure, and proliferation resistant. However, US policy and the global civil nuclear regime continue to reflect the state of affairs of bygone decades when the US held a virtual monopoly over nuclear technology. As this monopoly has all but eroded, many argue that the US must seek to influence rather than control, and that promoting, not restricting, the export of US-origin nuclear technology is the best means to affect global nuclear norms. The current negotiation over renewal of the US-ROK 123 Agreement is a microcosm of the greater debate between these concepts of control and influence.
The recent growth of South Korea’s commercial nuclear program has been as spectacular as the country’s emergence from its war-torn state in the 1950s to its current status as a global economic powerhouse; the ROK nuclear industry has gone from being technologically dependent on outside countries to becoming a world leader and technology exporter. Korea’s transformation into an advanced nuclear country has allowed the US-Korea nuclear relationship to flourish. While no longer dependent upon the US, Korea continues to import instrumentation/control elements, reactor coolant pumps, and nuclear fuel services from US companies. However, Korea has also become a major supplier of nuclear components into the US, and both the US and Korea collaborate extensively in third country markets—there was substantial Korean content in Westinghouse’s AP-1000 contracts in China, and Westinghouse serves as a major subcontractor for KEPCO’s reactor projects in the UAE. Given the current global nuclear landscape and the uncertainties surrounding nuclear programs in France and Japan, the US-ROK nuclear relationship has become critically important. Since the ROK utilizes and exports US-origin nuclear technology, it is also a crucial medium through which the US can project influence in the global nuclear arena.
Korea has the potential to play a major role in helping the US develop and set global norms for nuclear power. Nevertheless, the deadlock in the US-ROK 123 Agreement renegotiations threatens to derail the tremendous progress and evolution that the nuclear relationship between the two countries has undergone. The 123 renewal controversy has brought up the broader question of control versus influence. While the US nuclear industry and nonproliferation community may disagree on the means, they certainly agree upon the ultimate objective: safe, secure, and peaceful nuclear power for the world. To achieve this goal, the US will likely need a careful balance of legal measures, confidence and trust building, and promotion of enhanced regulatory structures in the rest of the world.