On 25 July, India and South Korea signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. This was the ninth such agreement for India since it received the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group waiver in 2008 to participate in international nuclear commerce (India had already inked deals with the United States, France, Russia, Canada, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina and Namibia.)
India and South Korea required only three rounds of negotiations to arrive at mutually acceptable terms, a reflection of the keenness on both sides to seal the deal. India has been looking at a rapid expansion of its nuclear programme so it can add capacity to its electrical grid, and so is keen to conclude agreements with partners with a good record on nuclear safety. South Korea emerged as a promising candidate as its 20 operational reactors have been contributing nearly 35 percent of its total electricity production. Also, unlike some countries like Japan, which have asked for a long list of conditions to be satisfied first (such as joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, and subscribing to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), South Korea didn’t have any such demands.
Rather, the nuclear cooperation agreement with India spells for South Korea a significant achievement as it tries to meet its nuclear export ambitions. It may be recalled that in a report to President Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge and Economy had said in 2010: ‘Nuclear power-related business will be the most profitable market after automobiles, semiconductors and shipbuilding…We will promote the industry as a major export business.’
South Korea is serious about securing a significant toehold in the nuclear industry. Having signed its first international nuclear contract for four power reactors with the United Arab Emirates in 2009, a contract that South Korea was able to obtain by dislodging the much more experienced nuclear exporter France and a US-Japan consortium, Seoul is keen to consolidate its credentials as a nuclear exporter. It has set for itself a target of bagging at least 20 percent of the global share of reactor exports by 2030, which translates into the export of 80 reactors. If it could achieve this mammoth target, South Korea would be level on nuclear exports with Russia, and behind only France and the United States.
In order to realize this ambition, South Korea is investing significant financial and human resources in enhancing its own technological self-sufficiency, especially over the export of its APR 1400 reactor. The focus within the country is on training more engineers – to the tune of nearly 2,500 new nuclear experts annually – to support the requirements of exports as well as the ambitious nuclear expansion plans within the country. After all, South Korea is among the three countries (the other two being China and India) that have announced ambitious nuclear targets for the next two decades and are seeing a feverish activity in nuclear plant construction. South Korea is also arriving at its own arrangements through overseas extraction projects to ensure a steady supply of fuel for its domestic and export commitments. Meanwhile, South Korea is also looking at the market for operation, maintenance and repair of nuclear reactors. KEPCO is obviously looking at entering the nuclear market with an eye on offering the entire range of nuclear services.
While none could begrudge the emergence of South Korea as a major nuclear supplier, it’s critical that the country accords due importance to the two essential foundations of the nuclear industry – the utmost need for nuclear safety and careful consideration of potential for proliferation. Given that any nuclear incident in any corner of the globe has ramifications for the overall fate of nuclear power, acts of individual players acquire greater significance. Nuclear suppliers and recipients both have a major stake in how this pans out.