2023 marks the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the United States-Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, which is the foundation of the ROK-U.S. alliance. But 2023 is also the seventieth anniversary of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, which became a foundation for developing international cooperation on civil nuclear energy and on non-proliferation. These two Cold War milestones serve as important reminders of the importance of the ROK-US relationship in times of intense international competition and the promise of nuclear power in addressing global challenges.
Nuclear energy is receiving special attention today as a way to strengthen energy security and to combat climate change by decarbonizing power generation, heavy industry, shipping, and other energy-intensive industries. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) incorporate multiple emerging nuclear reactor technologies and are especially well-suited to these tasks. For this reason, there are reasons to expect that nuclear energy markets could evolve rapidly away from conventional large nuclear power plants to SMRs.
The United States, China, Russia, and other nations are fiercely competing to be the first mover in the global SMR market. As reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year, the United States is currently developing twenty-one SMR designs, followed by Russia (seventeen SMR designs), and China (ten designs). Yet Russia and (to a lesser extent) China dominate today’s nuclear market. Russia’s state nuclear energy firm Rosatom has ongoing cooperation with many countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Soviet bloc, though some of these (such as Poland and Ukraine, among others) are now seeking other partners. Rosatom is also building nuclear plants in Turkey and the Middle East. For its part, China is heading to developing countries along the historical Silk Road through its One Belt, One Road program.
If the United States and its allies do not work collectively to improve their position in global nuclear markets—including not only the coming market for SMRs, but also the existing market for conventional large nuclear power plants, Russia and China will continue to dominate civil nuclear development. This could risk entrenching a substantially weaker nuclear non-proliferation regime and in time could fuel a new and much broader nuclear arms race. It could also allow Moscow and Beijing to establish new and deeper strategic relationships with their nuclear clients, who may rely on these two governments for some combination of operations, maintenance, parts, nuclear fuel, spent fuel removal and processing, and other services.
The United States has launched a new program, Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Technology (FIRST), to help America’s partners build advanced reactor programs. The effort includes key U.S. policy and regulatory agencies, such as the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and State and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as development and export-focused agencies like the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Export-Import Bank, U.S. National Laboratories, and a variety of industry, academic, and other non-governmental organizations. It is an important step forward in organizing the U.S. government and America’s nuclear community for the challenges ahead.
FIRST can provide a valuable framework for the United States and its allies in cooperating to win in the new global nuclear energy market. Some American allies are already seeking such a partnership with Washington. For example, the United States and Japan launched a similar joint project WECAN, Winning an Edge through Cooperation in Advanced Nuclear, to help other countries prepare to deploy SMRs or other advanced reactor designs.
South Korea committed to participate in the FIRST program during a 2022 summit meeting, but Washington and Seoul have not yet translated this into active collaboration. The fact that the ROK and the United States are currently engaged in a bitter intellectual property dispute over large nuclear power plant technologies has been a major obstacle. While South Korea and the United States are wasting time continuing a conflict that is not beneficial to either, Russia and China are strengthening their capabilities to win new market share.
Now it is the critical time for the United States and its allies to cooperate to stop Russia and China’s expansion. The United States has significant advantages if it commits to competing seriously in international nuclear markets. As a departure point, American firms are developing many more new reactor designs than the twenty-one SMRs that the IAEA cites. Indeed, U.S. companies are currently developing several tens of SMR designs simultaneously. But America cannot succeed alone. South Korea has a very robust nuclear supply chain and extensive human capital that could support the U.S.-led FIRST program and other U.S. nuclear exports. With its significant recent experience building new nuclear plants, the ROK can be one of America’s best partners.
South Korea’s government might contribute most effectively by introducing a new concept for such a partnership: SECOND. SECOND would reflect the ROK’s strengths in Supply chain, Engineering, Construction, and Operation for Nuclear Development. A U.S.-ROK alliance including FIRST and SECOND could open a new chapter in nuclear cooperation between Washington and Seoul and among firms in both countries.
Sang-Gil Park is an advisor at Lee & Ko Attorneys, where he specializes in the field of energy technology, including nuclear and hydrogen. His views do not represent those of his employers.