An increasing number of countries are expressing concerns over the South Korean government’s nuclear-free policy.
About seven countries, including South Korea, have exported at least one nuclear power plant to another country. At present, China, Russia and South Korea are doing so with nuclear power companies in France, Canada and so on going through a crisis. China and Russia have exported their nuclear power plants to 20 or so countries or are having negotiations to do so. The U.S. nuclear power industry has shrunk to a large extent since an accident in 1979. No new atomic power station was built there until 2012, resulting in a significant decline in its competitiveness. French and Japanese companies are significantly underfunded now.
It is Russia and China that have emerged as new powerhouses in the industry. However, the Western countries and Japan cannot comfortably rely on China and Russia in repairing, maintaining and renovating their atomic power stations. This means they need South Korea. The United States is currently running a total of 99 atomic power stations and they are in need of assistance for component replacement, repair, etc. Britain, which is planning to build 13 new nuclear power plants, is asking South Korea to participate in its projects.
The U.S. has relied much on imported components since its nuclear power supply network collapsed. For example, Doosan Heavy Industries has exported a number of steam generators and the like to the U.S. since 1999. “If the South Korean government opts to stick to its nuclear-free policy, the United States will have no other option but to import components from China and Russia, which is a situation the U.S. wants to avoid by any means,” the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) explained, adding, “The United States hopes that the South Korean nuclear power industry will maintain its competitiveness.”
As mentioned above, Britain is asking for South Korean nuclear power companies’ participation in its projects. For instance, Horizon Nuclear Power recently asked Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power to bid for a project for building four nuclear power plants in Britain. The Korea Electric Power Corporation is looking to participate in another one for building three in the northwestern region of the same country.
The Western countries are in need of the South Korean nuclear power industry for international political reasons as well. In general, a contract for the export of a nuclear power plant is based on the importing party’s promise to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. Russia and China, however, are relatively more lenient with themselves in making the promise. According to an industry expert, the Western countries are thinking that their control for nuclear non-proliferation in regions such as the Middle East and Africa declines as Russia’s and China’s dominance in the global nuclear power market increases and that South Korea is in compliance with the global standards regarding the matter as witnessed by the fact that it hosted the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. In other words, the Western countries are hoping that South Korea as one of their allies will put a brake on Russia and China by maintaining the competitiveness of its nuclear power industry so that they can maintain their influence with their nuclear power industries shrinking.
Some have pointed out that the policy can backfire in terms of national security and diplomacy. “Russia is currently making use of nuclear power stations as a tool for increasing its international influence,” said Nick Gallucci, scientific associate at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Michael Shellenberger, cofounder of Breakthrough Institute and founder of Environmental Progress, also mentioned that Russia and China will dominate the market and nuclear security will be threatened if South Korea steps aside.
Nuclear power plant export can facilitate the strengthening of diplomatic ties with destination countries. “Once a nuclear power plant is exported, it should be managed on an ongoing basis based on a very close relationship between the exporting and importing parties, which leads to the former’s influence on the latter,” said professor Lee Yu-shin at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of Yeungnam University. South Korea obtained a chance to join oil field development in the United Arab Emirates after it exported nuclear power plants to the country.
South Korea is in need of nuclear power plants for national security purposes, too. These days, nuclear-powered submarines are being increasingly mentioned as a measure against the North Korean nuclear threat. If the nuclear-free policy results in a collapse of the South Korean nuclear industry, the submarines cannot be built and uranium as their fuel cannot be supplied. “Balance of power can be achieved only when the South is capable of arming itself with nuclear weapons,” said Kim Tae-woo, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The South needs nuclear-powered submarines to cope with the North’s nuclear weapons,” said Park Chang-kyu, former president of the KAERI.