Why the U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Partnership Matters
The United States and South Korea have an established record of success in civil nuclear cooperation, and the continuation of that relationship will be critical to the international expansion of nuclear power.
Nuclear energy is a key tool in decarbonizing the global power system, and it also has the potential to address hard-to-abate sectors, such as desalination and industrial heat. However, it is critical that—as countries without nuclear energy work to build new nuclear energy programs, and as countries with existing programs seek to acquire the next generation of nuclear reactors—the United States and its allies are the leading vendors of the international nuclear market, rather than Russia and China. The United States and South Korea have an established record of success in civil nuclear cooperation, and the continuation and evolution of that cooperation will be critical to the international expansion of nuclear power.
Although the domestic nuclear industry in each country faces different challenges—an aging fleet and competition against cheap natural gas in the United States, and social and political opposition in much of South Korea—a renewed emphasis on fighting climate change in both countries may lead each to recognize the value of nuclear power in that effort. This recognition should, in turn, provide the opportunity for bilateral cooperation to strengthen domestic civil nuclear industries in the United States and South Korea, while bolstering what both countries can do together as they support the growth of nuclear power internationally.
Suppliers in both the United States and South Korea have strong capabilities in nuclear components and services. South Korean suppliers provided key components to the only traditional nuclear power plant currently under construction in the United States—which will soon begin operations in Georgia—and U.S. suppliers have historically provided components and services for South Korean reactors, though future prospects may not be as strong. The mutual supply chains are valuable for both countries and policies should encourage their continuation and expansion.
Both countries have extensive nuclear research programs and interest in developing the next generation of advanced nuclear energy capabilities. The United States has increased its commitment to nuclear research and demonstration, but the opportunities may stretch the appetite for funding. For example, the Department of Energy plans to build the Versatile Test Reactor to help support the development of advanced reactors, but doing so would be costly. Funding from other nations, including South Korea, in exchange for research opportunities, could help bring the effort to fruition.
Interest in the commercial development of advanced nuclear reactors may provide further opportunities for bilateral cooperation. South Korean suppliers have provided financial and technical support for U.S. advanced reactor developers in exchange for supply commitments, helping them make progress toward commercialization. Such opportunities could be expanded if restrictions on foreign ownership for nuclear power companies are modernized, as is contemplated in the proposed American Nuclear Infrastructure Act.
Both the United States and South Korean suppliers have strong capabilities to offer internationally; South Korean suppliers recently built the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates while achieving schedule and budget objectives, and with U.S. suppliers as key partners in the project. Cooperation between the United States and South Korea to support projects in third countries would enhance the capabilities and success of suppliers from both countries. Furthermore, cooperation to provide export financing could help compete with the state-supported offerings from Russia and China that could threaten U.S. and OECD non-proliferation and safety objectives.
With the international nuclear energy market expected to triple by 2050, it is clear that countries that wish to acquire nuclear power will do so. Whether the United States and its allies lead in providing civil nuclear technology, or Russia and China succeed in achieving leadership, will likely depend on the strength of U.S. civil nuclear partnerships with allied countries. U.S.-South Korean cooperation will play a crucial role in nuclear innovation and in the development of new nuclear capacity in the international arena.
Stephen S. Greene is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, and the author of the Atlantic Council’s report, Advancing US-ROK Cooperation on Nuclear Energy.
Dr. Jennifer T. Gordon is managing editor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.