Nuclear Power in South Korea

(Updated April 2016)

  • South Korea is a major world nuclear energy country, exporting technology. It is building four nuclear reactors in UAE, under a $20 billion contract.
  • 25 reactors provide about one-third of South Korea's electricity from 23 GWe of plant. 
  • Nuclear energy remains a strategic priority for South Korea, and capacity is planned to increase by 70% to 37 GWe by 2029, and then maintain that level to 2035.
  • The country is seeking relief from treaty commitments with the USA which currently constrain its fuel cycle options.

South Korea imports 97% of its fuel, by ship. Some $170 billion was spent on imported energy in 2011, one third of all imports. Without nuclear power, this import bill would have been about $20 billion higher according to KEPCO.

Power demand in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has increased by more than 9% per year since 1990 but slowed to about 2.8% pa 2006-10 and is projected to be 2.5% pa to 2020. Per capita consumption in 2012 was 9600 kWh, up from 860 kWh/yr in 1980. Over the last three decades, South Korea has enjoyed 8.6% average annual growth in GDP, which has caused corresponding growth in electricity consumption – from 33 TWh in 1980 to 493 TWh in 2012.

In 2013 electricity production was 539 TWh gross, with 242 TWh of this from coal, 139 TWh (25.7%) from nuclear, 123 TWh from gas, 22 TWh from oil and 8 TWh from hydro. In 2014 nuclear supplied 149 TWh, 30.4% of the total. At the end of 2012 installed capacity was 94.2 GWe, comprising 65.5 GWe combustible fuels, 20.7 GWe nuclear, 6.4 GWe hydro and 1.5 GWe renewable and other (IEA figures).

From 1961 until April 2001 South Korea's sole electric power utility was Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO). Set up as a government corporation, 49% of its shares are now held by public and foreign (ca. 30%) investors. The power generation part of KEPCO (now 68 GWe) was then split into six entities and all the nuclear generation capacity, with a small amount of hydro, became part of the largest of these, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co Ltd – KHNP. KEPCO remains a transmission and distribution monopoly. KEPCO E&C is another KEPCO subsidiary, with engineering focus, KEPCO NF makes nuclear fuel and KEPCO KPS handles maintenance.

Power supply plans

Under the country's 5th long-term power development plan, finalised in January 2000, eight more nuclear units (9200 MWe) were to be constructed by 2015 (in addition to the four then under construction), while two units would be decommissioned about 2008 if licences were not extended. This would bring nuclear to one third of the country's total generating capacity and it would supply 45% of the electricity.

The Ministry of Education, Science & Technology's (MOTIE) third comprehensive nuclear energy development plan, for 2007-11, projected that South Korea should develop its nuclear industry into one of the top five in the world, with about 60% of electricity from nuclear by 2035. As well as emphasis on production of nuclear fuel, the report envisaged construction of the Korean APR-1400 reactor, which was in fact also sold to UAE. In the country's 2008 Energy Master Plan to 2030, totalling some $100 billion, the increase was quantified as ten or eleven new nuclear power units to give 41% of electricity from nuclear.

In 2020 nuclear generation capacity of 26.4 GWe is expected to supply over 220 TWh – some 43% of electricity, simply considering those units now under construction and allowing for Kori 1 retirement. In 2022 nuclear capacity of 32.9 GWe was expected to be nearly one-third of the national total of 101 GWe then. By 2030 the government earlier expected nuclear to supply 59% of the power (333 TWh), from 41% of the installed capacity. This would require adding about 24 GWe nuclear by 2030. But at the end of 2013 a draft proposal to government was for nuclear to provide only 29% of capacity by 2035, instead of 41%, hence holding it at around the 2022 level.

MOTIE’s second Energy Master Plan announced in January 2014 and looking to 2035 scaled back earlier plans and targeted 29% of electricity from nuclear, along with improved demand management and improved public acceptance. This would require 43 GWe of installed capacity by 2035, hence building 8 GWe beyond the 8.6 GWe already planned. The target for renewables of 11% was maintained from 2008.

Then the government’s 7th basic long-term power development plan of electricity supply and demand was released by MOTIE in July 2015 with 12 new reactors in operation by 2029, and Kori 1 closed by then. This is two more than earlier planned. Electricity demand is expected to increase 2.2% annually to 2029, reaching 657 TWh/yr and with peak demand 112 GWe with aggressive conservation measures, 12-14% less than business as usual predictions. With 35 nuclear units on line in 2029, nuclear capacity would increase to 28.2% of total, up from 22.4% in 2014. The plan envisages cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 37% below business as usual levels by 2030, so plans for four coal-fired plants in the 6th plan two years ago have been dropped. This will reduce coal-fired capacity from 34.7% in 6th plan to 32.3%, and LNG capacity will be 24.8% in 2029.

Development of domestic nuclear policy

Nuclear activities were initiated when South Korea became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957. In 1958 the Atomic Energy Law was passed and in 1959 the Office of Atomic Energy was established by the government. The first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality in South Korea was a small research unit in 1962.

Ten years later construction began of the first nuclear power plant – Kori 1, a Westinghouse unit built on turnkey contract. It started up in 1977 and achieved commercial operation in 1978. After this there was a burst of activity, with eight reactors under construction in the early 1980s.

South Korean energy policy has been driven by considerations of energy security and the need to minimise dependence on current imports. Energy policy continues to have nuclear power as a major element of electricity production.

Nuclear power costs are low in Korea: for 2008 KHNP reported 39 won (KRW) per kWh (about 3¢/kWh), compared with coal 53.7 won, LNG 143.6 won and hydro 162 won. KHNP average price to KEPCO is 68.3 won (about 5¢) per kWh.

After drawing on Westinghouse and Framatome (now Areva) technology for its first eight PWR units, and Combustion Engineering (which became part of Westinghouse) for two more, the Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant (KSNP) became a recognised design, and evolved a little to KSNP+. In 2005 the KSNP/KSNP+ was rebranded as OPR-1000 (Optimised Power Reactor) apparently for Asian markets, particularly Indonesia and Vietnam. Ten operating units are now designated OPR-1000.

Beyond this, the Generation III APR-1400 draws on CE System 80+ innovations, which are evolutionary rather than radical. See section below.

Nuclear plants are at only four sites, and future plans and proposals add only one, so that up to eight units are likely at each.

Korea-US Atomic Energy Agreement

South Korea is very constrained in its nuclear power policy by the 1974 Korea-US Atomic Energy Agreement. This is a so-called '123 Agreement', named after section 123 of the 1954 US Atomic Energy Act, which constrains raw material supply and disallows uranium enrichment and reprocessing used fuel. Following the UAE agreement, the government has described these US constraints as "excessive", and pushed for them to be eased before renewal of the agreement. The main concern is reprocessing. The 1973 agreement expired in March 2014, though with failure to reach agreement it was extended two years by unanimous vote in both houses of US Congress. Even this time horizon had implications for long lead-time components for building the Barakah units in the UAE. See Fuel Cycle section below.

After several years of intensive negotiation, a 20-year extension to the agreement with the USA was signed in June 2015. This is worded more in terms of a partnership than the 1974 one, and allows a little more freedom to manage nuclear fuel. However, it contains no provision to allow South Korea itself to enrich uranium or to recycle used nuclear fuel through reprocessing, apart from providing for US consent for some research on electrometallurgical reprocessing, and opening the possibility of future uranium enrichment “through consultations with the USA.” The High-Level Bilateral Commission was established for ongoing high-level discussion which will include enrichment and reprocessing, holding out the possibility of future concessions on both. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, South Korea achieved three goals in the agreement: the right to deal with used nuclear fuel, a stable supply of nuclear fuel, and promoting the export of nuclear power plants. The new agreement, approved by both presidents, brings South Korea closer to what the USA allows for Japan. The Bilateral Commission held its first meeting in April 2016 and formally established four working groups through which US and South Korean experts will collaborate on the management of used nuclear fuel, the promotion of nuclear exports and export control cooperation, assured fuel supply, and nuclear security.

Nuclear export policy

KEPCO is actively marketing OPR-1000 and APR1400 units in Middle East and North African countries, as well as Latin America. In December 2009 the APR1400 was selected as the basis of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) nuclear power program, with the first four reactors to be operating at Barakah by 2020 under a $20.4 billion contact, and another ten to follow. Construction has commenced. The choice was on the basis of cost and reliability of building schedule. An application for US Design Certification is likely.

Shortly following its sale of four modern nuclear power reactors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy (now Ministry of Trade, Industry & Energy – MOTIE) declared in January 2010 that it aimed to achieve exports of 80 nuclear power reactors worth $400 billion by 2030, in the course of becoming the world's third largest supplier of such technology, with a 20% share of the world market, behind the USA and France or Russia. This was under a plan known as Nu-Tech 2030, which proposed the development of indigenous reactor technology with full intellectual property rights known as the Innovative, Passive, Optimised, Worldwide Economical Reactor (I-POWER) by late 2012. "Nuclear power-related business will be the most profitable market after automobiles, semiconductors and shipbuilding," it said, adding: "We will promote the industry as a major export business." The Korean industry aimed to be 100% self-sufficient by 2012, with no residual intellectual property constraints. The 80 reactors by 2030 now seems too ambitious, but in 2015 KEPCO had a target of six reactors by 2020, beyond the Barakah plant.

Following the UAE sale, it was marketing to Turkey, Jordan, Romania and Ukraine, as well as South East Asian countries, but is now focused on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Czech Republic. In addition to exporting reactors, it also plans to enter the $78 billion market for the operation, maintenance and repair of reactors.

In April 2015 KEPCO signed an agreement with Brazil’s Eletrobras and Eletronuclear, as a bridgehead into Latin America.

In November 2014 there were 200 UAE engineers at Korean nuclear plants, gaining experience for Barakah. The workforce of 18,000 at Barakah includes 2300 Koreans.

In January 2015 the SMART Power Company (SPC) was launched with support from six supply chain companies in order to export the small reactor technology, particularly to the Middle East for desalination. See section on SMART reactors below.

Licence renewals and uprates

KHNP and MEST (now MOTIE) have been negotiating licence renewals to extend 30-year operating lifetimes of Kori 1 and Wolsong 1, by ten years. A six-month upgrading and inspection outage at Kori 1 in the second half of 2007 concluded a major refurbishment program and enabled its relicensing for a further ten years. In 2015 the energy advisory panel recommended against further life extension.

At Wolsong 1, a Candu 6 PHWR, considerable refurbishment was undertaken in a longer outage from April 2009 to to July 2011, including replacement of all 380 calandria tubes, to enable a further 25 years operational life. Some KRW 560 billion ($520 million) was spent. It had been operating at slightly derated capacity (622 MWe gross) since 2004, but the refurbishment including replacement of calandria tubes restored it to design level of 691 MWe gross. However, it was then shut down in November 2012 when its 30-year licence expired, and spent 28 months awaiting licence renewal by the NSSC. In October 2014 the Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS – see section below on Regulation and safety, organisations) said that the unit could operate to 2022, and in February 2015 NSSC renewed the licence to 2022. It restarted in June 2015 after KHNP had signed an agreement with local residents, including those in the nearby coastal city of Gyeongju, on the development of the region including the continued operation of Wolsong 1.

Other Korean reactors are licensed for 40 years initially.

Power uprates of most units occurred at the end of 2005, totalling 693 MWe and reflecting the fact that may had been declaring load factors of over 100% for some time.

Power reactors operating in South Korea

Reactor Type Net capacity Commercial
Kori 1 PWR – Westinghouse 576 MWe 4/78 2017
Kori 2 PWR – Westinghouse 640 MWe 7/83 2023
Wolsong 1 PHWR – Candu 6 657 MWe 4/83 2022 or 2036
Kori 3 PWR – Westinghouse 1011 MWe 9/85 2025
Kori 4 PWR – Westinghouse 1010 MWe 4/86  
Hanbit 1, Yonggwang PWR – Westinghouse 961 MWe 8/86  
Hanbit 2, Yonggwang PWR – Westinghouse 977 MWe 6/87  
Hanul 1, Ulchin PWR – Framatome 963 MWe 9/88  
Hanul 2, Ulchin PWR – Framatome 965 MWe 9/89  
Hanbit 3, Yonggwang PWR (System 80) 1000 MWe 12/95  
Hanbit 4, Yonggwang PWR (System 80) 998 MWe 3/96  
Wolsong 2 PHWR – Candu 650 MWe 7/97  
Wolsong 3 PHWR – Candu 665 MWe 7/98  
Wolsong 4 PHWR – Candu 669 MWe 10/99  
Hanul 3, Ulchin OPR-1000 997 MWe 8/98  
Hanul 4, Ulchin OPR-1000 999 MWe 12/99  
Hanbit 5, Yonggwang OPR-1000 994 MWe 5/02  
Hanbit 6, Yonggwang OPR-1000 993 MWe 12/02  
Hanul 5, Ulchin OPR-1000 998 MWe 7/04  
Hanul 6, Ulchin OPR-1000 997 MWe 4/05  
Shin Kori 1 OPR-1000 999 MWe 2/11  
Shin Kori 2 OPR-1000 1000 MWe 7/12  
Shin Kori 3 APR1400 1340 MWe (5/16)  
Shin Wolsong 1 OPR-1000 998 MWe 7/12  
Shin Wolsong 2 OPR-1000 10000 MWe 7/15  
Total: 25 23,017 MWe    

Net capacities updated from PRIS July 2015. Hanbit 3&4 are now shown by KHNP as OPR-1000.
In May 2013 Yonggwang was renamed Hanbit and Ulchin was renamed Hanul.
In 2014 Wolsong 3 & 4 were de-rated by 19 MWe due to ageing.

In recent years the capacity factor for South Korean power reactors has averaged up to 96.5% – some of the highest figures in the world.

In 2005 permits for construction of Shin Kori 1&2 and Shin Wolsong 1&2 (all basically 1000 MWe gross) were authorised. First concrete for Shin Kori 1&2 was in June 2006 and August 2007 respectively. For Shin Wolsong first concrete for unit 1 was December 2007 and for unit 2 September 2008. Shin Kori 1 started up in July, was grid connected in August 2010, and entered commercial operation at the end of February 2011. Unit 2 started up at the end of December 2011, was grid connected in January 2012 and entered commercial operation in July. Shin Wolsong 1 started up in January 2012, was grid connected later in the month and entered commercial operation at the end of July. However, it was then shut down to enable replacement of cabling. The operating licence for Shin Wolsong 2 was issued in November 2014; it started up early in 2015, was grid connected in February, and entered commercial operation in July, following several months' delay to replace cabling.

South Korean reactors under construction or planned

Reactor Type Gross capacity Start construction Commercial operation
Shin Kori 4 APR1400 1400 MWe August 2009 February 2017
Shin Hanul 1, Ulchin APR1400 1400 MWe July 2012 April 2017
Shin Hanul 2, Ulchin APR1400 1400 MWe June 2013 February 2018
Total under const: 3   4200 MWe
(5360 MWe net, 1340 each)
Shin Kori 5 APR1400 1400 MWe September 2016 March 2021
Shin Kori 6 APR1400 1400 MWe September 2017 March 2022
Shin Hanul 3, Ulchin APR1400 1400 MWe 2018 December 2022
Shin Hanul 4, Ulchin APR1400 1400 MWe 2019 December 2023
Cheonji 1 APR+  1500 MWe 2022? December 2026
Cheonji 2 APR+  1500 MWe 2023? December 2027
Shin Kori 7 APR+ 1500 MWe    
Shin Kori 8 APR+ 1500 MWe    
Total planned: 8   11,600 MWe    

Those not under construction are listed as planned in the WNA reactor table.
Bold dates = under construction.

Construction of the first pair of third-generation APR1400 reactors – Shin Kori 3&4 – was authorised in 2006 though the actual construction licence was not issued until April 2008. In anticipation of it, KHNP placed a US$ 1.2 billion order with Doosan Heavy Industries for major components of both in August 2006. Westinghouse had a $300 million contract with Doosan for part of this order. In February 2007 a contract was let to a consortium led by Hyundai to build the two plants, subsuming the Doosan order. Site works started in November 2007 and first concrete for unit 3 was poured at the end of October 2008, and that for unit 4 in mid September 2009. Construction time of 51 months was envisaged for these first units, but completion was delayed for more than 12 months due to the need to replace cabling. This work was finished and checked for unit 3 in November 2014, with unit 4 about two months behind it. However, faulty valve parts then led to further delay in commissioning unit 3, so it started up in December 2015 and was grid-connected in January 2016. Commercial operation is expected in May 2016, with unit 4 two months later. In October 2015 the regulator gave an operating licence for six-month test run of unit 3.

In April 2009 the government authorised construction of Shin Hanul 1&2 at Ulchin in North Gyeongsang province, and contracts for major APR1400 components were signed in March 2010. First concrete for unit 1 was poured at the end of July 2012, with completion expected in April 2017. Unit 2 is a year behind it, with first concrete in June 2013. The two units will be the first to be virtually free of Westinghouse IP content and are expected to cost KRW 7 trillion (US$ 6 billion, $2070/kW). 

In January 2014 the government authorised construction of Shin Kori 5&6 as APR1400, with construction to start in September 2014, but it was then delayed to late 2015, then to September 2016. Commercial operation is due in March 2021 and March 2022. They are expected to cost KRW 7.61 trillion ($7.1 billion, $2450/kW). KHNP awarded a KRW 1180 billion construction contract to a Samsung C&T, Doosan and Hanhwa consortium in June 2015.

In November 2014 KHNP signed an agreement with Ulchin County to build Shin Hanul 3&4. Under the agreement, in exchange for hosting the new units, KHNP will provide the county with KRW 280 billion ($250 million), mainly to be used for improving local infrastructure, with the remainder for building new schools and hospitals. KHNP expects to issue a tender for these late in 2016. Commercial operation is expected in December 2022 and 2023.

In November 2014 the government signed an agreement with Yeongdeok County in North Gyeongsang province 100 km north of Wolsong to build the new Cheonji plant, initially with two 1500 MWe reactors – evidently APR+, possibly from 2022. Two more units are proposed. For hosting the new plant, the county will receive payments totalling KRW 1.5 trillion ($1.3 billion) from KHNP over 60 years. In 2015 KEPCO said that Cheonji 1&2 would come on line in 2026 and 2027. The basic project plan was set in August 2015.

Samcheok in Gangwon province 180 km east of Seoul has also been under consideration for a new plant. However, an unofficial referendum at Samcheok, which volunteered a site in 2010, got a response of 85% against any new reactor there, despite a 97% vote in favour in 2009. 

In April 2013 KHNP said it had applied to build Shin-Kori unit 7. Both units 7&8 remain in prospect, but unconfirmed. They appear to fit within the 7th Basic long-term power development plan of mid 2015.

Korean government data is reported to put the overnight cost of APR1400 at the end of 2009 as $2300/kW, compared with $2900/kW for EPR and $3580/kW for the GE Hitachi ABWR. The same data puts the generation cost for the APR1400 at US$ 3.03 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with an estimated 3.93 cents/kWh for EPR, and 6.86 cents/kWh for ABWR.

Reactor development, intellectual property

The first three commercial units – Kori 1&2 and Wolsong 1 – were bought as turnkey projects. The next six, Kori 3&4, Hanbit 1&2 at Yonggwang, Hanul 1&2 at Ulchin , comprised the country's second generation of plants and involved local contractors and manufacturers. At that stage the country had six PWR units derived from Combustion Engineering in USA, two from Framatome in Europe and one from AECL in Canada of radically different design.

Then in the mid 1980s the Korean nuclear industry embarked upon a plan to standardise the design of nuclear plants and to achieve much greater self-sufficiency in building them. In 1987 the industry entered a ten-year technology transfer program with Combustion Engineering (now part of Westinghouse) to achieve technical self-reliance, and this was extended in 1997.

A sidetrack from this was the ordering of three more Candu-6 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) units from AECL in Canada, to complete the Wolsong power plant. These units were built with substantial local input and were commissioned 1997-99. (see also DUPIC in R&D section below)

In 1987 the industry selected the CE System 80 (2-loop) steam supply system as the basis of standardisation. Hanbit/ Yonggwang 3&4 were the first to use this, with great success, and they marked significant technical independence for Korea. A further step in standardisation was the Korean Standard Nuclear Plant (KSNP), which from 1984 brought in some further CE System 80 features and incorporated many of the US Advanced Light Water Reactor design requirements. It is the type used for all further 1000 MWe units as well as the two briefly under construction in North Korea.

In the late 1990s, to meet evolving requirements, a program to produce an Improved KSNP, or KSNP+, was started. This involved design improvement of many components, improved safety and economic competitiveness, and optimising plant layout with streamlining of construction programs to reduce capital cost. Shin-Kori 1&2 represent the first units of the KSNP+ Program and were followed by Shin Wolsong 1&2. This Generation II design is being offered for export as the Optimised Power Reactor – OPR-1000.

Beyond this, the Generation III Advanced Pressurised Reactor-1400 draws on CE System 80+ innovations, which are evolutionary rather than radical. The System 80+ has US Nuclear Regulatory Commission design certification as a third-generation reactor. The APR-1400 was originally known as the Korean Next-Generation Reactor when work started on the project in 1992. The basic design was completed in 1999 and design certification by the Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety was awarded in May 2003. It offers enhanced safety with seismic design to withstand 300 Gal ground acceleration, and has a 60-year design life. It is 1455 MWe gross in Korean conditions according to IAEA status report, 1350-1400 MWe net with 2-loop primary circuit. In a warm climate such as UAE, gross power is about 1400 MWe. Cost is expected to be 10-20% less than KSNP/OPR-1000. The first APR-1400 units – Shin-Kori 3&4 – are under construction, and operation was expected in 2013 and 2014. A 48-month construction period is envisaged normally. Korea Power Engineering Company (KOPEC) is the main designer, and Doosan the main manufacturer. In June 2010 Doosan signed a $3.9 billion contract to supply heavy reactor components and turbines to KEPCO for four APR1400 reactors in UAE.

KHNP decided not to renew its reactor technology licence agreement with Westinghouse in 2007 but to embark upon a business cooperation agreement instead, whereby KHNP would join with Westinghouse in marketing jointly-developed technology while KHNP completes the development of its own components to replace those, eg in the APR1400, dependent on the licensing. This led into a KHNP $200 million program to develop an exportable advanced APR+ large (1500 MWe net) reactor design by 2015, though Westinghouse is not expected to let it compete in main markets such as USA and China without KEPCO buying the rights to the design. However, securing the $20.4 billion contract to build four APR-1400 reactors in UAE is a major boost for KEPCO. Moving on from that, KOPEC is developing an APR1400-EUR for the European market, specifically Finland. This will have double containment, core-catcher and extra safety train.

KHNP’s 4308 MWt, 1500 MWe APR+ gained design approval from NSSC in August 2014. It was “developed with original domestic technology”, up to 100% localized, over the seven years since 2007, with export markets in view. It has modular construction which is expected to give 36-month construction time instead of 52 months for APR1400. It has 16 more fuel assemblies than APR1400, of a new design, and passive decay heat removal. Also it is more highly reinforced against aircraft impact than any earlier designs.

Beyond the APR+ is the 1200 MWe iPower or premier power reactor (PPP), not yet funded by the government, but with 80-year operating life, zero serious accident potential, and passive cooling.

Early in 2010 KEPCO announced that it was designing an APR1000 as a Generation III type, based on the OPR-1000 but incorporating APR performance and safety features and with 60-year operating life. Basic design was due to be finished in August 2011, but there is no schedule for detailed design. The APR-1000 was intended for overseas markets, notably Middle East and Southeast Asia, and will be able to operate with an ultimate heat sink of 40°C, instead of 35°C for the OPR-1000. Improved safety and performance would raise the capital cost above that of the OPR, but it this would be offset by reduced construction time (40 months instead of 46) due to modular construction. Nothing has been heard of the project for several years.

KEPCO signed an agreement with Indonesia's PT Medco Energi Internasional, an independent power producer, in 2007 to conduct a feasibility study – with KHNP – for Indonesia's first nuclear power plant. This would probably be one or more OPR-1000 units.

KEPCO and Doosan were reported to be offering Jordan their OPR-1000 nuclear reactor. However, the OPR is designed for 200 Gal seismic acceleration and would need to be upgraded to at least 300 Gal for Jordan and Turkey. Jordan then considered the APR-1400, but did not proceed with it.

SMART reactors

The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) has been developing the SMART (System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor) – a 330 MWt pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators and advanced passive safety features. It is designed for generating electricity (up to 100 MWe) and/or thermal applications such as seawater desalination – up to 40,000 m3/day. Design life is 60 years, with a three-year refuelling cycle. While the basic design is complete, the absence of any orders for an initial reference unit has stalled development and frustrated export intentions. KAERI licensed the design (standard design approval) in 2012 and incorporated post-Fukushima modifications to 2016. It planned to build a 90 MWe demonstration plant to operate from 2017. In mid-2010 a consortium of 13 South Korean companies led by Kepco pledged 100 billion won ($83 million) to complete the design work. US-based engineering company URS is providing technical services to KAERI. Cost is expected to be about $5000/kW. It has 57 fuel assemblies very similar to normal PWR ones but shorter, and it operates with a 36-month fuel cycle.

In January 2015 the SMART Power Company (SPC) was launched with support from six supply chain companies in order to export the technology, particularly to the Middle East for desalination. The Ministry for Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP) plans to form a government-supported consultative body with the Office for Government Policy Coordination, the Ministry of Trade, Industry & Energy (MOTIE) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to support SMART export cooperation activities and private businesses.

In March 2015 KAERI signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) to assess the potential for building at least two South Korean SMART reactors in that country, and possibly more. The cost of building the first SMART unit in Saudi Arabia was estimated at $1 billion. The agreement is seen by South Korea as opening opportunities for major involvement in Saudi nuclear power plans, and it also calls for the commercialization and promotion of the SMART reactor to third countries. Through to November 2018 pre-project engineering will be undertaken jointly including FOAK engineering design and preparations for building two units. KAERI sees this as a new business model for SMR development.

KAERI has designed an integrated desalination plant based on the SMART reactor to produce 40,000 m3/day of water and 90 MWe of power at less than the cost of gas turbine. The first of these was envisaged for Madura Island, Indonesia, but the focus is now on the Middle East.

Fuel cycle: front end

South Korea has had an open fuel cycle, without enrichment or reprocessing, due to the terms of its 1973 nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA, which was renewed in June 2015. In recent years diplomatic efforts have sought to remove these constraints so as to get some 30% more energy from imported uranium and reduce the amount of high-level wastes. Reprocessing is the main issue, but some reports suggest that a Korean enrichment plant under international control is a possibility, with reprocessing being done in a third country such as Japan. Both questions are sensitive due to US efforts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear activities. In April 2013, with little progress being made on South Korea’s agenda, a two-year extension of the existing arrangements was agreed, to March 2016, and this was confirmed by US Congress in January 2014. The US State Department referred to "several complex technical issues" being unresolved, but did not elaborate.

Uranium for fuel comes from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Niger and elsewhere – 5000 tU being required in 2014, and 8900 tU being anticipated demand in 2020. KEPCO, KNFC, Hanwha and KHNP are together becoming involved with uranium exploration in Canada. The state-owned Korea Resources Corporation (KORES) has declared an intention to invest heavily in uranium and copper mines in Africa and South America. In December 2009 KEPCO agreed to take a 20% interest in the Imouraren operating company in Niger, along with 10% of the product – expected to be 500 tU/yr over 35 years. The figure of US$ 360 million in uranium projects to 2026 has been mentioned. KEPCO also owns 17% of Denison Mines and is entitled to 20% of its product.

Korea had no known and quantified uranium resources, though Perth-based Stonehenge Metals has acquired Chong Ma Mines Inc which holds the rights to the Daejon uranium deposit, identified by the Korean Institute of Energy and Resources (KIER) in a 1986 report. A JORC-compliant inferred resource of 25,000 tU at 0.027%U was announced in 2011. Uranium mining was planned from 2015, and test work on recovering vanadium by-product is proceeding. The Korean Resources Corporation (KORES), which discovered Daejon in 1979, holds the adjoining Gumsan deposit along strike to the south from Daejon. Stonehenge has two other deposits further north in the same Ogchon geological formation: Miwon and Gwesan.

In 2006 enrichment demand was 1.8 million SWU, supplied from overseas. Tenex, Urenco and USEC have previously supplied this, but in mid 2007 KHNP signed a long-term (10+ years) EUR 1 billion contract with Areva NC for enrichment services at the new Georges Besse II plant in France. Then in mid 2009 it took a 2.5% equity stake in the plant. In 2012 Kepco was considering investment in phase 2 of Urenco USA’s New Mexico plant, according to MOTIE.

KAERI has developed both PWR and Candu fuel technology. It and KEPCO Nuclear Fuel Company (KEPCO NF) have fabricated and supplied PWR fuel since 1990 and Candu PHWR fuel (unenriched) since 1987. KEPCO NF has capacity of 700 t/yr for PWR fuel and 400 t/yr for Candu PHWR fuel, and supplies all KHNP's needs. From 2015 KEPCO NF plans to supply HIPER and X-gen design code fuel.

In February 2009 Westinghouse announced that it and KEPCO NF will manufacture control element assemblies for Combustion Engineering-design power reactors in the USA and South Korea. A new joint venture (Westinghouse 55%, KEPCO 45%), KW Nuclear Components, will make the elements at KEPCO NF's fuel fabrication facility in Daejeon. The Shin Kori 4 APR-1400 under construction is likely to include the first control elements manufactured by the venture.

Used fuel and Radioactive Waste Management

The Korea Radioactive Waste Management Co. Ltd (KRWM) was set up early in 2009 under the Radioactive Waste Management Act as an umbrella organisation to resolve South Korea's waste management issues and waste disposition, and particularly to forge a national consensus on high-level wastes. Until then, KHNP had been responsible for managing all its radioactive wastes. In October 2013 a Public Engagement Commission of 13 nuclear experts, professors, city council members and an official from a private environmental watchdog was formally set up to take account of public opinion on spent nuclear fuel issues and feed into policy decisions. It reports to MOTIE and is based in Gyeongju. In mid-2013 its name changed to the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD).

The Atomic Energy Act of 1988 established the principle under which KHNP was levied a fee based on power generated to cover the cost of waste management and disposal. A fee was also levied on KNFC. The fees were collected by MEST and paid into a national Nuclear Waste Management Fund. A revised waste program was drawn up by the Nuclear Environment Technology Institute (NETEC) and approved by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1998. These arrangements are superseded by KRWM, and KHNP now contributes a fee of KRW 900,000 (US$ 705) per kilogram of used fuel to KRWM.

Used fuel is stored on the reactor site pending construction of a centralised interim storage facility which is planned to be operational by 2024, eventually with 20,000 tonne capacity. About 13,250 tonnes was stored at the end of 2013, onsite pool capacity being 12,000 t, about half of both figures being for Candu fuel at Wolsong. About 6000 t was stored at end of 2002. Dry storage is used for Candu fuel after six years cooling. It is also proposed for other used fuel as pools at reactors reach capacity, notably Kori and Hanul/Ulchin. The new Public Engagement Commission is due to produce a report about the end of 2014. Long-term, deep geological disposal is envisaged, though whether this is for used fuel as such or simply separated high-level wastes depends on national policy developments.

Reprocessing, either domestic or overseas, is not possible under constraints imposed by the country's cooperation agreement with the USA which now expires in March 2016. However this is being appealed in the renegotiations, and pyroprocessing proposed, which addresses US concerns. KHNP has considered offshore reprocessing to be too expensive, and recent figures based on Japanese contracts with Areva in France support this view, largely due to transport costs. A public consultation on storage of used fuel pending disposal was announced in November 2012, since at-reactor storage was reported to be already 71% full.

Low and intermediate-level wastes (LILW) have also been stored at each reactor site, the total being about 60,000 drums of 200 litres. Volume reduction (drying, compaction) is undertaken at each site. A 200 ha central disposal repository at Gyeongju is now being built for all this. It is on schedule.

NETEC took over the task of finding repository sites after several abortive attempts by KAERI and MEST 1988-96. In 2000 it called for local communities to volunteer to host a disposal facility. Seven did so, including Yonggwang county in South Jeolla province with 44% citizen support, but in 2001 all local governments vetoed the proposal. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry & Energy (now MOTIE) then in 2003 selected four sites for detailed consideration and preliminary environmental review with a view to negotiating acceptance with local governments from 2004. Buan, in North Jeolla province was reported to be favoured.

The area selected for the LILW facility would get KRW 300 billion (US$ 260 million) in community support according to "The Act for Promoting the Radioactive Waste Management Project and Financial Support for the Local Community" 2000. The aim of this is to compensate for the psychological burden on residents, to reward a community participating in an important national project, and to facilitate amicable implementation of radioactive waste management.

In November 2005, after votes in four provincial cities, Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang province on the east coast 370 km SE from Seoul was designated as the site. Almost 90% of its voters approved, compared with Gunsan 84%, and Yeongdeok 79%. It is close to Wolsong, and the official name of the facility is the Wolseong Low and Intermediate-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Centre.

In June 2006 the government announced that the Wolseong LILW repository would provide shallow geological disposal of conditioned wastes, with vitrification being used on ILW to increase public acceptability. It would have a number of silos and caverns some 80m below the surface, initially with capacity for 100,000 drums. Construction started in April 2008. Further 700,000 drum capacity would be built later, total cost amounting to US$ 1.15 billion. As well as the initial US$ 260 million grant, annual fees will be paid to the local community.

In December 2010 KRWM (now KORAD) commenced limited operation of the Wolseong facility at Gyeongju, accepting the first 1000 drums of wastes there from the Hanul plant at Ulchin. These have been held in outdoor storage pending commissioning of the underground repository itself. About nine such shipments are expected annually. The site covers 2.1 sq km. The first stage of the central repository was completed on schedule in June 2014, at a cost of KRW 1.56 trillion ($1.53 billion), but licensing by NSSC was delayed to January 2015. It has six silos 24 m diameter, more than 80 m below sea level, with capacity for 100,000 drums of waste. With over 5000 drums stored on site, the first wastes were placed in a silo in July 2015.

Construction of a second, near-surface, stage of the Wolseong LILW repository began in January 2012 and is expected to be finished at the end of 2019. It will have 125,000 drum capacity. Ultimately, the facility will be used to dispose of a total of 800,000 drums of waste.

Regulation and safety, organisations

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) is the highest decision-making body for nuclear energy policy and is chaired by the Prime Minister. It was set up under the Atomic Energy Act.

The high-level Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) chaired by the Minister of Education, Science & Technology was responsible for nuclear safety regulation until 2011. It was independent of the AEC and was set up by amendment of the Atomic Energy Act in 1996. The regulatory framework is largely modelled on the US NRC.

The government launched the new Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) in October 2011. It is the new independent regulator, reporting to the president, and its chairman has ministerial rank. The Korean Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS), formerly the expert safety regulator under MEST, became a technical support organisation under it, while MEST simply promoted nuclear power. The NSSC's scope covers licensing, inspection, enforcement, incident response and emergency response, non-proliferation and safeguards, export/import control and physical protection. In 2012 the NSSC signed an agreement with its Canadian counterpart (CNSC) to strengthen cooperation.

In December 2013 the NSSC agreed with Japan and China regulators to form a network to cooperate on nuclear safety and quickly exchange information in nuclear emergencies.

The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), responsible for R&D, comes under the Korea Research Council of Public Science & Technology (KORP).

The Technology Centre for Nuclear Control, responsible for nuclear material accounting and the international safeguards regime, was transferred from KAERI to KINS at the end of 2004 and was then replaced by the National Nuclear Management and Control Agency (NNCA). In June 2006 this was replaced by the Korean Institute of Nuclear Non-proliferation and Control (KINAC), with greater independence, under MEST. However this role has now apparently been transferred to NSSC.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE, formerly Ministry of Knowledge Economy 2008-2013 and Ministry of Commerce, Industry & Energy before that) is responsible for energy policy, for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel supply and radioactive waste management. KEPCO, KHNP, KNFC, NETEC and heavy engineering operations come under MOTIE, and KEPCO seems to have a controlling role re the others. The Korea Nuclear Energy Foundation (KNEF) is a public information body also under MOTIE.

The Ministry of Education, Science & Technology (MEST) had overall responsibility for nuclear R&D, nuclear safety and nuclear safeguards. Having been joined to it in 2008, in 2013 the Ministry of Education was split from this, and the remnant became the Ministry for Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP).

After the Fukushima accident there was immediate assessment of each site followed by a special ministerial safety review of all plants (with special attention to Kori 1) and then IAEA Integrated Regulatory Review Service check of the whole South Korean situation. A number of measures were initiated: the coastal barrier at Kori 1 was raised to 10m, watertight doors were fitted to emergency diesel generator buildings, battery power supplies were secured form possibility of flooding, a truck with portable diesel generator was situated at each site, pumps were waterproofed, passive hydrogen removal systems not dependent on electricity were installed, exhaust and decompression equipment was improved, and the seismic performance of automatic shutdown and cooling systems was improved. All this represents an investment of about US$ 1 billion over five years.

In 2012 KHNP discovered that it had been supplied with falsely-certified non-safety-critical parts for at least five power reactors. The utility told the ministry that eight unnamed suppliers – reportedly seven domestic companies and one US company – forged some 60 quality control certificates covering 7682 components delivered between 2003 and 2012. The majority of the parts were installed at Hanbit (Yonggwang) units 5 and 6, while the rest were used at Hanbit units 3 and 4 and Hanul (Ulchin) unit 3. Hanbit units were taken offline while the parts were replaced.

Then in May 2013 safety-related control cabling with falsified documentation was found to have been installed at four reactors. The NSSC ordered KHNP immediately to stop operation of its Shin Kori 2 and Shin Wolsong 1 units and to keep Shin Kori 1, which has been offline for scheduled maintenance, shut down. In addition, the newly-constructed Shin Wolsong 2, which was awaiting approval to start commercial operation, could not start up. All would remain closed until the cabling has been replaced, which was expected to take about four months. Shin Kori 1&2 and Shin Wolsong 1 were cleared to restart in January 2014. Completion of Shin Kori 3&4 was delayed, to 2015, due to the need to replace control cabling which failed tests. In October 2013 about 100 people were indicted for their part in the falsification of documentation.

The Korea Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency (KONEPA) changed its name to Korea Nuclear Energy Agency (KNEA) in mid-2015.

The Korea Nuclear Association (KNA) was set up in 2011 as an industry association linking Kepco with suppliers and contractors, and is supported by MOTIE. The Korea Atomic Industry Forum (KAIF) is supported by MOTIE, and is domestic-focussed. In April 2016 it signed a cooperation agreement with Rosatom International Network.


The main roles of nuclear R&D are to ensure that the national energy supply is secure, and to build the country's nuclear technology base to support nuclear exports. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) is the main body responsible for R&D. Particular goals established in 1997 include reactor design and nuclear fuel, nuclear safety, radioactive waste management, radiation and radioisotopes application, and basic technology research. The last, taking 27% of the funds, includes: development of liquid metal reactors, direct use of spent PWR fuel In Candu reactors (DUPIC), application of lasers, and research reactor utilisation.


KAERI's DUPIC program is the subject of South Korea's national case study for the IAEA's INPRO project, evaluating new fuel cycle technologies. It involves taking used fuel from light water reactors such as PWRs, crushing it, heating it in oxygen to drive off some 40% of the fission products, and re-forming it into PHWR fuel. It still contains all the actinides including about 1% plutonium, and about 96% uranium including approx 1% U-235. So the fissile content is about 1.5%, more than double that of natural uranium usually used for today's PHWRs. DUPIC research has been supported by Canada and is described more fully in the Processing Used Nuclear Fuel paper.

ACP, electrometallurgical 'pyroprocessing'

The other major research initiative by KAERI related to used fuel is an advanced spent fuel conditioning processACP. Development of this process involves substantial US-South Korean nuclear cooperation, since the USA effectively controls what is done with the country's used fuel, and will be central to the renewal of the US-ROK agreement due in 2016. Much of the R&D has been done in the USA, based on earlier US work in 1970s, but paid for by KAERI. However, the US government then suspended this. South Korea has declined an approach from China to cooperate on electrolytic reprocessing, and it has been rebuffed by Japan's CRIEPI due to government policy.

The US Department of Energy included in its 2008 budget funding for pyroprocessing R&D. This was significant in that the USA had strongly discouraged reprocessing in Korea previously. But after the USA announced its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) early in 2006, the S. Korean government pressed it to include KAERI's R&D in GNEP, including particularly ACP. The DOE funding request for KAERI links pyroprocessing research to GNEP (now IFNEC), while US DOE laboratories work with KAERI staff on ACP. In 2011, the USA and South Korea signed a 10-year research and development agreement to experiment with pyroprocessing technology and verify whether it is more resistant to proliferation.

Using electrometallurgical pyroprocessing to close the fuel cycle with oxide fuels however requires them to be reduced to the metal on a commercial basis. It involves heating the pulverised used fuel to drive off volatile fission products and then reducing it to metal. This is put into a bath of molten lithium and potassium chloride, and uranium is recovered electrolytically (95.1% of the used fuel). The transuranics (notably Pu, Np, Am, Cm) remaining are concentrated and removed with some fission products (notably cerium, neodymium & lanthanum) to be fabricated into fast reactor fuel without any further treatment (1.6% of the used fuel). This is intrinsically proliferation-resistant because it is so hot radiologically, and the curium provides a high level of spontaneous neutrons. Also it recycles over 95% of the used fuel, leaving about 3.3% as separated wastes

In 2008 IAEA approved an electrorefining laboratory – the Advanced Spent Fuel Conditioning Process Facility (ACPF) at KAERI, which was built in the basement of the Irradiated Materials Experiment Facility (IMEF) for laboratory-scale demonstration of ACP. This led to KAERI’s Pyro-process Integrated Inactive Demonstration Facility (PRIDE), which began testing operations in 2012. Demonstration work is proceeding to 2016, as effectively the first stage of a Korea Advanced Pyroprocessing Facility (KAPF) to start experimentally in 2016 and become a commercial-scale demonstration plant in 2025. In connection with renewal of the US-ROK agreement in or by 2016, discussions are proceeding on pyroprocessing.

Fast reactors

Closely related to the ACP development, and designed to be fueled by the product of it, KAERI has proposed development of a pool-type sodium-cooled fast reactor which will operate in burner (not breeder) mode. This was supported by the USA in connection with GNEP/IFNEC and a Korean prototype Generation IV sodium-cooled fast reactor (PGSFR) is planned for 2028. Building on decades of cooperation already, a formal agreement with the US Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) was signed in August 2014 to progress this towards NSSC licensing approval by 2020 and commissioning by the end of 2028. The US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is also supporting the project.

The prototype would produce 150 MWe for the grid, but its main purpose would be to demonstrate its fuel: PGSFR is to use metal fuel pins composed of low-enriched uranium and zirconium, and it can be subsequently reloaded with fuel that also contains transuranic elements recovered from reprocessing used oxide fuels. Argonne said that "the metal fuel technology base was developed at Argonne in the 1980s and 1990s; its inherent safety potential was demonstrated in the landmark tests conducted on the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) in April 1986. They demonstrated the safe shutdown and cooling of the reactor without operator action following a simulated loss-of-cooling accident... The PGSFR is the world's first fast reactor that exploits inherent safety characteristics to prevent severe accidents." (Metal fuel was previously used in Fermi 1 reactor in the USA and the Dounreay reactor in the UK.)

In November 2015 KAERI signed an agreement with Russia’s Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) to irradiate PGSFR fuel rods in Russia’s BOR-60 fast research reactor.

KALIMER (Korea Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor) is a 600 MWe pool type sodium-cooled fast reactor designed since 1992 to operate at 510ºC. A transmuter core consisting of uranium and transuranics in metal form from pyro-processing is being designed, and no breeding blanket is involved. Future deployment of KALIMER as a Generation IV type was envisaged.

Another stream of fast reactor development is via the Nuclear Transmutation Energy Research Centre of Korea (NuTrECK) at Seoul University (SNU), drawing on Russian experience. It is working on lead-bismuth cooled designs of 35, 300 and 550 MW which would operate on pyro-processed fuel. The 35 MW unit is designed to be leased for 20 years and operated without refuelling, and then returned to the supplier. It would be refuelled at the pyro-processing plant and have a design life of 60 years.

As well as the fast reactor means of burning actinides, KAERI is researching HYPER (Hybrid Power Extraction Reactor), a kind of subcritical reactor which will be activated by a proton accelerator.

Research reactors

KAERI has constructed 30 MW thermal research reactor based on the Canadian Maple design called HANARO, which started up in 1995. In contrast to Canada's experience with Maple, this apparently works very well. It is the basis of the JRTR being designed for and built in Jordan, the contract being signed in March 2010. It will be 5 MW with potential to upgrade to 10 MW.

In February 2012 MST announced that 20 MW research reactor and radioisotope facility (notably for Mo-99) would be built in Busan by 2016, with the 290 billion won ($259 million) project partly funded by Busan. The justification includes export of radioisotopes.

VHTR and hydrogen

KAERI has also submitted a Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) design to the Generation IV International Forum with a view to hydrogen production from it. This is envisaged as 300 MWt modules operating at 900-950ºC each producing 30,000 tonnes of hydrogen per year. With engineering design completed in 2014, KAERI expects construction to start in 2016 and operation in 2020. An agreement with steelmaker Posco envisages using the VHTR for smelting iron.

In 2005 KAERI embarked upon a US$ 1 billion R&D and demonstration program aiming to produce commercial hydrogen using nuclear heat around 2020. KAERI has close links on hydrogen with the Institute of Nuclear & New Energy Technology (INET) at Tsinghua University in China, based on China's HTR-10 reactor, and is forming other links with its counterpart in Japan. In 2005 it set up a South Korea-US Nuclear Hydrogen Joint Development Center involving General Atomics.

It plans to develop the sulfur-iodine (SI) process for hydrogen production while also developing high-temperature reactors and the alloys enabling them to be used with heat exchangers for chemical plants. Prototype SI hydrogen production is expected about 2011, followed by a pilot plant in 2016, which will then be connected to a high-temperature reactor. Which type of reactor will be decided in 2006.


Beyond fission, KSTAR (Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research) was launched in December 1995 and began operating in September 2007 at Daejeon. The US$ 330 million facility is the world's eight fusion device and will be a major contribution to world fusion research, contributing to the ITER project taking shape in France.


South Korea is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state. Its safeguards agreement under the NPT came into force in 1975 and it has signed the Additional Protocol in relation to this.

North Korean project

In the 1990s there was a proposal to build two South Korean KSNP reactors at Kumho in North Korea, paid for by international subscription. The project was aborted. See: North Korea section at end of Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries paper for details.

Country Nuclear Power Profiles, IAEA, 1998, p.331-346.
OECD/IEA 1994 Energy Policies of the Republic of Korea
Westinghouse World View, August 2002, Korea's Nuclear Strategy.
Chung, Bum-Chin, 2001, Growth in Korean Nuclear Activity, The Nuclear Engineer 42,3.
KHNP Trust 2002 and web site.
Song, M-J. 2003, Radioactive Waste Management and Disposal in Korea, KAIF/KNS conference.
Hong J-H 2006, Status and plans for nuclear power in Korea, WNFC conference April 2006.
Presentation at WNU Summer Institute, Cheongju, August 2007.
Korea Atomic industrial Forum, 2008, Nuclear Industry in the Republic of Korea.
IAEA status report 83 – APR1400
Yoo Yunbaek, Nuclear Power Policy of Korea, World Nuclear Association Symposium 2014.

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