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

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

NuScale and Samsung C&T, the construction and trading arm of the 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 the next critical 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 the business development of SMR through stronger cooperation between NuScale and Korean strategic investors,” Byungsoo Lee, vice president of Samsung C&T, said in the statement. “I believe that SMRs will play an important role in responding to the demand for carbon-free and climate change.”

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

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

Samsung, Doosan and GS Energy will advise NuScale on component manufacturing, plant construction and plant operation, according to the statement. NuScale probably 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 envisions building plants that are faster and cheaper than today’s nuclear plants, says Charles Mason, professor 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.

Modular reactors can take less than a year to build 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 those things are chronically plagued by cost overruns,” says Mason. He believes that parts of the world that are phasing out coal-fired power could consider modular nuclear plants instead of traditional ones. “I think there is a real future for some places to support modular reactors,” he says.

Sites in the US have begun exploring whether to install the smaller reactor, Allen notes, and sites in Asia may do the same. China is working on its own.

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

But the future of these plants depends on regulatory approval, which means any deployment could take five to 10 years, Allen says. “NuScale has a lot of memorandums of understanding, but we don’t know if it will work yet,” she says.

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

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