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Is South Korea's nuclear industry a model for others to follow?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

As the nuclear power crisis has unfolded in recent months ‒ engulfing major nuclear companies and utilities in the US, Japan and France ‒ South Korea's nuclear industry has been held up as a model for others to follow. US nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger, for example, explains 'why Korea won': "Korea is winning the global competition to build new nuclear plants against China and Russia despite being a fraction of the size, at just 50 million people, and energy-poor. It has done so through focus: standard design, standard construction of plants, standard operation and standard regulation."1

But South Korea's nuclear industry is scandal-plagued, it hasn't won any bids to build reactors overseas since 2009, and it is more than a stretch to describe it as "world class" as nuclear advocate Rod Adams would have you believe.2 Public and political support has been in freefall over the past five years because of the Fukushima disaster and a domestic nuclear corruption scandal (see the following article in this issue of the Nuclear Monitor). In the coming years, nuclear power's contribution to domestic electricity supply is likely to decline and there is little likelihood that an export industry will flourish. Moreover, with public support for the nuclear industry in freefall, the government has little hope of achieving its aim of securing a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository by 2028.

Korea Times noted on April 21 that every major candidate in South Korea's presidential election promised to stop building new nuclear reactors and to close down older ones.3 The winner of the May 9 presidential election, Moon Jae-in, who stood as the candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea, is a former human rights lawyer. World Nuclear News reported that Moon was one of seven presidential candidates who signed an agreement in March for a "common policy" to phase out nuclear power.4 During the election campaign, Moon said he would scrap plans for new reactors ‒ including Shin Kori units 5 and 6 ‒ while immediately closing the Wolsong-1 reactor.4 (In February 2017, the Seoul Administrative Court ordered the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission to cancel its decision to extend the lifespan of Wolsong-1 because legal procedures had not been followed in the decision-making process.) Moon also said he would block lifespan extensions for the older reactors at the Kori plant5 ‒ the four Kori reactors were grid-connected between 1977 and 1985.

Moon said during the election campaign that he believes South Korea will have to phase out all of its remaining nuclear power plants over the next 40 years or so.3 "I will make South Korea build no more nuclear reactors and close down aged nuclear reactors when their lifespan expire," Moon said. "Through this, South Korea can arrive at nuclear zero in 2060, and until then, we can develop alternative sources."2

Kim Jwa-kwan, head of Moon's energy policy team, said after the election that the target is to reduce reliance on nuclear power from the current 30% down to 18% by 2030.6 Kim also reaffirmed Moon's pre-election pledge to scrap the planned Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors.

The 18% target is a huge drop from previous targets. It is less than one-third of the 2030 target of 59% announced by Korea Electric Power Company (Kepco) in 2011 and well short of the 2035 target of 29% announced by the former government in 2013.7

South Korea has 25 'operational' reactors, three under construction, and a further eight are planned according to the World Nuclear Association.8 In the aftermath of the presidential election, the reactors under construction are in doubt and the prospects for the eight planned reactors are dim. Nuclear power generation and capacity has steadily increased since the 1980s but nuclear's percentage of total electricity generation has fallen sharply, from 45% in 2005 to 30% today.9

President Moon Jae-in is also taking steps to reduce the reliance on coal and to boost renewables. For a month in June 2017, eight aging coal-fired power plants will stop operations. From next year, 10 old coal plants will be shut from March to June when electricity demand is relatively low, and the government plans to close them permanently during Moon's five-year presidency.10 The government plans to reduce reliance on coal for power generation from 43% to 25% by 2030 ‒ although an increase in gas-fired power production is also planned.6

Moon said during the election campaign that he would aim to raise the proportion of electricity generated from renewables to 20% by 2030. Plans will take shape at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, which releases its eighth annual report later this year.11

Declining public support

A 2005 IAEA-commissioned survey of 18 countries found that only in South Korea was there majority support for new reactors.12 But in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster and South Korea's nuclear corruption scandal, public support has tanked:

  • In 2010, the proportion of South Koreans who considered nuclear power safe was 71% but that number halved to 35% in 2012 according to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. Reuters reported: "The ministry has been sharply criticized for its role as regulator and operator of the country's nuclear power plants, and one of its subsidiaries was accused of suppressing negative public opinion after the Fukushima disaster by not publishing polls."13
  • Likewise, 64% of respondents to a May 2014 survey by the Korea Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency said they consider domestic reactors unsafe, up from 56% in March 2013.14
  • A May 2011 survey found 61% opposition to nuclear power in South Korea and 68% opposition to new reactors.15
  • A 2013 poll found that 65.6% percent of respondents were willing to pay higher electricity prices if it meant fewer nuclear power plants.16
  • Korea Nuclear Energy Agency polling in 2015 found that only 30% favored more nuclear power, compared to 51% in 2009.17
  • A 2015 poll in Yeongdeok, designated as a nuclear power plant site by the government in 2012, found that opposition to the proposed nuclear plant (62%) doubled support (31%).16,17
  • A local referendum in October 2014 in Samcheok City, Gangwon Province, resulted in 85% of voters opposing the national government's plan for a new power reactor in the region.18
  • All political candidates in the June 2014 elections in Busan, the closest major city to the Kori nuclear plant, called for the closure of unit 1, which has been plagued with safety issues.7

In February 2015, Nuclear Intelligence Weekly reported that South Korea's anti-nuclear movement has grown and diversified since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and gained momentum because of the safety / corruption scandals: "Before the Fukushima disaster, the movement was largely limited to environmental groups and people living near nuclear facilities, who focused on opposing newbuild and radioactive waste disposal sites. Since then it has been joined by consumer groups and women’s associations that are concerned about radioactive contamination in food and other products; religious bodies ‒ mainly Catholic groups and Buddhists; and left-wing political organizations and labor unions that criticize the government’s expansionary nuclear policies."19

Concerns about Fukushima were reawakened in September 2016 when two big earthquakes hit the south-eastern part of South Korea, resulting in the temporary shutdown of four power reactors.20

South Korea's nuclear exports

South Korea's nuclear export industry ought to be the big winner from the deep troubles facing competitors such as Toshiba, Westinghouse and the French utilities EDF and Areva. Some hope that South Korea's Kepco will take a share in bankrupt Westinghouse. That would theoretically open up a range of export options for South Korea: it would give it a toe-hold in the US, Kepco might pursue the stalled plan for six AP1000 reactors in India, and so on.

Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd recently argued that the UK nuclear new-build program should have been put out to tender with the winner building 15 or so identical reactors.21 He misses the irony that if that happened a decade ago, the likely winner would have been now-bankrupt Westinghouse. If a similar UK tender was established now, Kidd argues, South Korea would be the likely winner.

In any case, while Kepco may be interested in buying into the NuGen project to build three reactors at Moorside in the UK, Kepco president Cho Hwan-eik was unequivocal in his comments in March 2017 about buying a stake in Westinghouse: "We have no plan to acquire Toshiba's stake [in Westinghouse] ... there is no role for us there".22 Moreover, discussions about Kepco buying into NuGen date from 2013 if not earlier, yet nothing has been agreed.23 And South Korean involvement in NuGen might be affected by the recent election of Moon Jae-in as president.

In 2010, South Korea's Ministry of Knowledge Economy (now the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy) stated that it aimed to achieve exports of 80 nuclear power reactors worth US$400 billion by 2030.24 Yet as the Financial Times noted in February 2017, that objective is now viewed as "wildly ambitious" and South Korea hasn't won a single bid to build reactors since 2009, when it secured the contract to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates.25 South Korea has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with at least 27 countries24 but those agreements aren't leading to reactor supply contracts.

South Korea's nuclear cooperation agreement with South Africa was ruled to be illegal by a recent South African High Court ruling. South Korea hoped to export reactors to Vietnam, but Vietnam cancelled its nuclear program last year. South Korea's attempts to get into the Indian nuclear market have come to nothing.24,26 South Korea's plan to build 'SMART' small reactors in Saudi Arabia has an air of unreality about it since no other country ‒ including South Korea itself ‒ has built such a reactor (and it's not hard to imagine the new political leadership in South Korea revisiting the wisdom of selling nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia given the Kingdom's open interest in developing nuclear weapons). The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been slowly assessing South Korea's APR1400 reactor design but even if that review is completed and successful, there is no prospect of new reactors in the US for the foreseeable future. And on it goes ... South Korea has been in discussions with Indonesia and Malaysia but neither country is likely to pursue nuclear power in the foreseeable future.

A detailed 2015 Brookings Institution paper concluded: "Some of the countries that South Korea is targeting for its nuclear exports are in the early stages of planning nuclear power programs, whereas others are more advanced. Given the poor financial condition of some of these countries and their lack of any kind of nuclear infrastructure, it is far from certain that the ambitious nuclear power programs of many of these countries will be realized."24

The recent presidential election won't help South Korea's nuclear export industry. Ongoing domestic experience building reactors is the strongest foundation for an export industry yet plans for new reactors in South Korea will likely be shelved. Nuclear lobbyist Rod Adams said Moon Jae-in "might single-handedly reverse the progress that the Korean Electric Power Company (KEPCO) has achieved in learning how to build large nuclear plants. If the country stops building reactors at home, it will have substantially more difficulty maintaining its ability to successfully export the technology."2 Adams further noted that exporting nuclear power plants "requires substantial up-front financial support from the vendor and its home government"27 but that financial support is now in jeopardy in the wake of the election result.

South Korea's APR1400 reactor design

South Korea's APR1400 reactor design ‒ its version of long-established pressurized water reactor technology ‒ might be a good fit in the context of the deep troubles facing Toshiba, Westinghouse and the French nuclear utilities. Those troubles demonstrate the need to cut nuclear costs and if that means sacrificing safety, so be it. Steve Thomas noted in a 2014 paper that Korean authorities acknowledge that the APR1400 would not meet US or European requirements, particularly on aircraft crash protection and, for Europe, a core-catcher.28

Anne Lauvergeon, the CEO of Areva when the French utility lost its bid to build reactors in the UAE, was scathing about Korea's winning APR1400 design. Nucleonics Week reported: "She mentioned in particular that EPR's containment was designed to withstand the crash of a large jet aircraft and had a provision to prevent molten corium from penetrating the reactor basemat if the core melted through the reactor vessel. She likened the Korean reactor ‒ which she said had neither such feature ‒ to 'a car without airbags and safety belts.'"29

There is hardly any operating experience with APR1400 reactors. Only one is operating ‒ Shin Kori #3 in South Korea ‒ and that reactor only began commercial operation in December 2016. Three other APR1400 reactors are under construction in South Korea, and four in the UAE.30

The safety and forgery scandal that first emerged in 2012 has delayed the APR1400 projects in South Korea. Rod Adams wrote in Forbes: "That reactor [Shin Kori #3], the world's first APR1400 was initially scheduled to begin operating in 2013 and to be in commercial service by mid to late 2014. That plan was perturbed when inspectors in Korea found substandard control and safety system cabling installed in a number of Korean nuclear plants. The investigation eventually revealed that Shin Kori unit 3 had out-of-specification cables installed. The complete cycle of discovery, corrective action determination and cable replacement delayed the commercial operation of Shin Kori unit 3 by more than two years."31

And the delays in South Korea have delayed completion of the APR1400 reactors in the UAE.32

The completion of four APR1000 reactors on-time and on-budget in the UAE is held up by nuclear lobbyists to be one of the industry's best good-news stories. But the reactors may not be completed on time and precious little credible information is available on the cost of the reactors and where the funding is coming from. The 2016 World Nuclear Industry Status Report pulled together available information:7

"At the time of the contract signing in December 2009, with Korean Electric Power Corp., the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp (ENEC), said that “the contract for the construction, commissioning and fuel loads for four units equaled approximately US$20 billion, with a high percentage of the contract being offered under a fixed-price arrangement". The original financing plan for the project was thought to include US$10 billion from the Export Import Bank of Korea, US$2 billion from the Ex-Im Bank of the U.S., US$6 billion from the government of Abu Dhabi, and US$2 billion from commercial banks. However, it is unclear what other financing sources have been used for the project, and it is reported that the cost of the project has risen significantly, with the total cost of the plant including infrastructure and finance now expected to be about US$32 billion, with others putting the cost of the contracts at US$40 billion, including fuel management and operation, although little independent information is available."

Security and proliferation

Jungmin Kang and Frank von Hippel, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on 15 May 2017, argue that the new political leadership in South Korea should cancel an R&D project into pyroprocessing and fast reactors:33

"One of the first orders of business for South Korea’s new political leadership should be the review of a plan ‒ developed and promoted relentlessly by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) ‒ to reprocess South Korea’s spent nuclear fuel to recover its plutonium and other transuranic elements for fueling sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors. KAERI’s scheme would saddle the country with a hugely costly, dangerous, and futile nuclear enterprise. ...

"KAERI and the ministry that funds it have been promoting pyroprocessing as a technology that could reduce the volume of high-level radioactive waste requiring deep disposal by a factor of up to 20, the area required for geologic disposal by a factor of up to 100, and the toxicity of the radioactive waste by up to a factor of 1,000, relative to spent fuel. All these claims are false. Pyroprocessing is not a dream technology that can solve South Korea’s spent-fuel problem. It is a costly detour to nowhere."

If South Korea abandoned its reprocessing and fast reactors plans, that might make it somewhat easier to convince Japan and China to abandon their reprocessing plans and to stop the vicious cycle of proliferation of dual-use technologies in north-east Asia.34

Another task for the new political leadership is to address the vulnerability of nuclear plants to military strikes, all the more important in the context of heightened tensions with North Korea. Yonhap News reported on 16 May 2017 that a report by KHNP noted that South Korea's power reactors have not been designed to deal with military attacks ‒ the outer protective walls were not designed to withstand a missile strike or other forms of concerted attacks.35

Kim Jong-hoon, a parliamentarian representing the conservative Liberty Korea Party, said that Seoul was several years behind the US in coming up with safety measures to deal with military and terrorist attacks. "The fact that the country has not taken action in the past is a serious lapse, especially with North Korea's evolving missile threats," Kim said.35


1. Michael Shellenberger, 13 Feb 2017, 'Why its Big Bet on Westinghouse Nuclear is Bankrupting Toshiba',

2. Rod Adams, 12 April 2017, 'Republic Of Korea May Decide To Reign In Its World Class Nuclear Industry',

3. Jung Min-ho, 21 April 2017, 'Future of nuclear energy bleak in Korea',

4. World Nuclear News, 10 May 2017,

5. World Nuclear News, 11 April 2017,

6. Jane Chung / Reuters, 18 May 2017, 'S.Korea coal, nuclear power targeted for cuts by presidential candidates',

7. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., 2016, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016, or direct download:


9. IAEA,

10. Korea Times, 16 May 2017, 'Shutdown of coal plants',

11. Shim Woo-hyun, 10 May 2017, 'Moon Jae-in to push for renewable energy policies',

12. Globescan, 2005, ‘Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA: Final report from 18 countries’, prepared for the IAEA, p.19,

13. Reuters, 7 Jan 2013, 'South Korea to expand nuclear energy despite growing safety fears',

14. Heesu Lee, 15 Jan 2015, 'Fukushima Meltdowns Pervade S. Korea Debate on Reactor Life',

15. IPSOS, 2011, 'Global Citizen Reaction to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster',

16. Se Young Jang, 8 Oct 2015, 'The Repercussions of South Korea’s Pro-Nuclear Energy Policy',

17. Toby Dalton and Minkyeong Cha, 23 Feb 2016, 'South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Future',

18. Takano Satoshi, Jan./Feb. 2015, 'Samcheok, South Korea, holds “genuine” local referendum on new NPP', Nuke Info Tokyo, No. 164,

19. Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, 27 Feb 2015, 'South Korea: Anti-Nuclear Movement Grows and Widens', Vol. IX, No. 9,

20. Matthew Bell, 11 May 2017, 'South Korean Catholics take the lead in protesting against nuclear power',

21. Steve Kidd, 9 May 2017, 'The UK nuclear programme – does it make any sense?',

22. Song Jung-a in, 22 March 2017, 'Kepco rules out buying Westinghouse stake',

23. Guy Chazan, 20 Nov 2013, 'Scandal-hit Korean group makes UK nuclear bid',

24. Robert Einhorn, Fred F. McGoldrick, James L. Tyson, and Duyeon Kim, 16 Jan 2015, 'ROK-U.S. Civil Nuclear and Nonproliferation Collaboration in Third Countries',

25. Kana Inagaki, Leo Lewis and Ed Crooks, 15 Feb 2017, 'Downfall of Toshiba, a nuclear industry titan',
26. Anirban Bhaumik, 12 Jan 2014, 'New Delhi wary of nuclear cooperation with Seoul',

27. Stephen Stapczynski, 16 May 2017, 'New South Korean President Seen Hindering Nuclear Ambitions',

28. Steve Thomas, July 2014, 'Nuclear technology options for South Africa',

29. Nucleonics Week, 22 April 2010, ‘No core catcher, double containment for UAE reactors, South Koreans say’,

30. 22 May 2017, 'APR-1400',

31. Rod Adams, 4 May 2017, 'Delayed Start Up At Shin Kori Unit 3 In South Korea Delays Barakah Unit 1 Start Up In UAE',

32. Reuters, 4 May 2017, 'UAE delays launch of first nuclear power reactor ‒ source',

33. Jungmin Kang and Frank von Hippel, 15 May 2017, 'Reprocessing policy and South Korea’s new government',

34. Fumihiko Yoshida, 30 June 2016, Confronting plutonium nationalism in Northeast Asia,

35. Yonhap News, 16 April 2017, 'S. Korea's nuclear power reactors not designed to deal with military attacks',