Some of Korea’s biggest conglomerates to build small-scale nuclear power plants in Asia

Samsung and two other Korean conglomerates have signed an agreement with US-based NuScale to build small-scale modular nuclear reactors, known as SMRs, in Asia as demand for clean energy grows globally.

NuScale and Samsung C&T, the construction and marketing arm of Samsung Group, along with units of Korean conglomerates Doosan Group and GS Group, will explore the deployment of NuScale’s SMR power plants. “This announcement is a critical next step in bringing NuScale’s clean energy solution to Asia,” NuScale said in a statement.

“With this MOU, it is expected that there will be great progress in developing SMR business through stronger cooperation between NuScale and Korean strategic investors,” said Byungsoo Lee, vice president of Samsung C&T, in the statement. “I think SMRs will play an important role in responding to the climate change and carbon-free demand.”

The deal was announced after Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president of South Korea in March. Yoon, who took office on May 10, vowed to embrace nuclear power to accelerate South Korea’s goal of zero emissions.

Samsung C&T, the de facto holding of billionaire Jay Y. Lee’s Samsung conglomerate, began co-investing with NuScale in 2019, followed by more cooperation last year.

Samsung, Doosan and GS Energy will advise NuScale on component manufacturing, construction and plant operation, the statement said. NuScale likely expects Samsung C&T to “build these things efficiently,” says Todd Allen, chairman and professor in the department of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan.

NuScale likely anticipates building plants that are faster and cheaper to build than current nuclear plants, says Charles Mason, chair of oil and natural gas economics in the University of Wyoming’s department of economics and finance. NuScale specializes in “small modular reactors,” he notes.

Building modular reactors can take less than a year and cost “tens of millions of dollars” rather than billions, Mason estimates.

“Conventional [nuclear] plants tend to be very expensive, take a long time to build and, because of that, are chronically plagued by cost overruns,” notes Mason. He believes that parts of the world that are phasing out coal-generated power might consider modular nuclear power plants instead of traditional ones. “I think there’s a real future for some places behind modular reactors,” he says.

Locations in the US have begun to explore the possibility of installing the smaller reactor, Allen notes, and places in Asia could do the same. China is working on its own.

The global nuclear power plant and equipment industry generated $41 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $58 billion by 2030, Allied Market Research said in February. The market research firm points to rising energy demand amid the “cleaner energy generation prerequisite” as the reason for the expected growth.

But the future of these plants depends on regulatory approval, which means any deployment could take anywhere from five to 10 years, notes Allen. “NuScale has a lot of memoranda of understanding, but we still don’t know if it’s going to work,” he says.

Allen notes that no one has taken the lead in the global market in SMRs, and NuScale is trying to secure regulatory approvals first.

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