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Small is beautiful in South Korea's pivot back to nuclear power

President Moon cornered by carbon pledge with few renewable options

South Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction is working with U.S. startup NuScale to develop small modular reactor plants, like the one pictured here. (Photo courtesy of  NuScale Power)

SEOUL -- South Korea has embraced mini reactors as part of the government's approach to achieving carbon neutrality, even though the move backpedals from President Moon Jae-in's earlier pledge to phase out nuclear power.

The small modular reactors, or SMRs, will be developed primarily at Munmu Daewang Science Research Center, which is scheduled to open in 2025 in the city of Gyeongju. The government earmarked 326.3 billion won ($281 million) for construction, and the whole project is expected to cost over $500 million.

"Our country will further develop nuclear technology as the driving force for energy and the economy," Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said at the groundbreaking ceremony in late July.

The complex will house 16 research facilities. Apart from SMRs, the research center will explore technology for storing nuclear waste and dismantling reactors.

A single SMR generates less than 5% of the electrical output of a conventional nuclear plant. This reactor is submerged in a pool of water, an arrangement deemed safer than that of regular reactors. SMRs also cut costs because critical components can be made at factories and assembled on site.

Russia has begun commercial operation of SMRs. The U.S. and U.K. are conducting research and development on the small-scale reactors. Last summer, a model from American startup NuScale Power won design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

South Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction, which possesses the expertise to manufacture turbines and other SMR components, is participating in NuScale's project. Seoul is tapping universities and state-affiliated research institutions to advance R&D into next-generation nuclear power.

But even if SMR technology is fully established, the government likely will spend much time negotiating with locals and acquiring land for the new reactors. Disposal of nuclear waste remains a challenge in South Korea, and safeguarding against terrorism will be imperative.

The Wolsong power plant is one of South Korea's oldest nuclear facilities. President Moon Jae-in initially sought to decommission aging plants. (Photo courtesy of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power)

Moon won the presidency in 2017 in part by campaigning against nuclear power. Once in office, Moon said he would scrap plans to build nuclear plants and forbid aging facilities from prolonging operation.

But he backed away from those declarations after experts argued against the planned cancellations of plant projects already under construction. The administration also restarted plants that were suspended for inspections after businesses and consumers complained of tight power supplies and rate hikes.

South Korea's nuclear plants operated at 67% of capacity in 2018 from over 80% prior to Moon's inauguration in 2017. But the figure returned to 75% as of 2020.

Driving the government's support for SMR research is the stated goal of attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

"We will have to make nuclear power a key source of energy for the next 60 years," Kim said in a parliamentary debate in June.

Nuclear power accounted for 18.2% of South Korea's energy mix last year, the third-largest category after liquefied natural gas at 32.3% and coal at 28.1%. Megasolar farms are unworkable because South Korea contains little flatland.

South Korea would "approach fantasy" if it expected to attain carbon neutrality while abandoning nuclear power, said Park Ju-heon, economics professor at Dongduk Women's University in Seoul.

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