South Korea's anti-nuclear push casts cloud over Kepco

The Kori No. 1 reactor (right) and No. 2 reactor of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco) in Ulsan, south-east of Seoul.
The Kori No. 1 reactor (right) and No. 2 reactor of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco) in Ulsan, south-east of Seoul. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A decision by South Korea's new President to scrap plans for more domestic nuclear power plants will make it harder for the country to sell reactors to buyers overseas, experts warn.

State-run Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco) is building the first of four nuclear plants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in an US$18.6 billion (S$25.6 billion) deal, and is scouting for more business in Britain and other countries.

But many nuclear experts doubt South Korea's ability to export a technology it is ditching at home after President Moon Jae In, who took office in May, said he would scrap plans to build new domestic reactors.

South Korea is the world's fifth-biggest user of nuclear energy and Kepco, which has built more than 20 reactors at home, vies with the likes of France's EDF and Toshiba's Westinghouse unit in the niche but fiercely competitive nuclear export market.

"Exporting nuclear is an international competition, and Korea will look like a child fighting alone to win a game while others have support from a whole family," said nuclear engineering professor Chung Bum Jin of  South Korea's Kyung Hee University.

The complexity of nuclear installations meant companies could not rely on past experience for building reactors, said Mr Roh Dongseok, a senior nuclear power policy research fellow at the Korea Energy Economics Institute.

"You also need a proven record to revise and upgrade nuclear design. Even if there's a slight change in nuclear design, it is considered as new technology and skills," he said.

Suppliers in Korea, who often produce only small quantities of components, could also face difficulties without the support of a domestic industry, analysts say.

Kepco's international nuclear project team is working to keep its export business alive. "We are focusing on the UK market, but also on Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Iran," the company's chief nuclear officer Jong Hyuck Park said at a recent industry event in London.

Kepco is also in talks with Japan's Toshiba to buy a stake in Britain's NuGen nuclear project, aiming to use its own reactor design.

"The company (Kepco) aims to finish the due diligence process by August or September.... and it will take more time to look into South Africa," said a source with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to be identified.

NuGen, planned for Moorside in north-west England, was thrown into doubt after Westinghouse declared bankruptcy and its partner in the project, France's Engie, pulled out.

A Kepco spokesman said the company is awaiting government guidelines on nuclear exports.

The government's nominee as energy minister has yet to take up the post and it is not yet clear when the government will specify plans for the industry.

"If the South Korean government and industry show a commitment to its exports, it can have a viable and successful nuclear export programme to build on its UAE success," said Mr George Borovas, global head of nuclear at law firm Shearman & Sterling.