Repairing the U.S.-ROK Nuclear Rift

The ice finally has broken in the two-year-plus civil nuclear Cold War between the U.S. and South Korea.

In a joint statement from the summit between Presidents Biden and Moon, the countries committed to “develop cooperation in overseas nuclear markets, including joint participation in nuclear power plant projects.”

The leaders went further in the fact sheet from the summit committing to “promote coordination in the supply chain” that will support this collaboration in overseas nuclear markets.

But the real olive branch was the commitment by South Korea to “adopt a common policy with the United States to require recipient countries have an IAEA safeguard agreement Additional Protocol in place as a condition of supply of nuclear power plants.”

The combined effect of these commitments is to de-escalate, and more importantly depoliticize, the ongoing fight between Korea’s KEPCO and Westinghouse over the U.S. intellectual property and componentry in the ROK APR-1400+ reactor.

That battle has frozen U.S.-Korean nuclear cooperation at all levels for years.

The most immediate issue this comity could impact is the currently moribund Saudi Arabian tender for two large nuclear reactors. It was that opportunity that initiated the conflict.

KEPCO was concerned that accepting the Westinghouse position on its content in their reactor would tie its ability to independently compete for the Saudi’s business to the completion of a nuclear cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. This arrangement had been the basis for U.S.-Korean cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the provision of reactors for the Barakah nuclear power complex.

In the case of Barakah, the U.S. had already completed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE before KEPCO won the reactor competition. However, the prospects for achieving a similar nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was in question. A critical issue was the U.S. insistence that the Saudi’s accept the Additional Protocol (AP) as a provision of the pact and the Saudi’s unrelenting resistance to it.

The AP was a point of controversy because it allows the International Atomic Energy Agency expanded rights of access to information and locations to ensure there is no nuclear weapons diversion from a peaceful nuclear program. Saudi Arabia did not want to grant that additional intrusive authority to the Agency.

The agreement’s prospects were further clouded by the very real possibility that the Congress would reject it if it were completed and submitted to them for approval, as required by U.S. law. It was an opportunity to demonstrate disapproval of Saudi actions in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and underscore concerns that it could lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

It is not clear that the new Biden-Moon agreements will resurrect the Saudi reactor process any time soon. But it does put Saudi Arabia and other nations on notice that there is now a united front on nuclear safeguards and nonproliferation between two of the largest democratic nation nuclear suppliers.

This could begin to set up a challenging choice for nuclear-interested nations. Select the higher standards and long-term commitments of democratic nation nuclear suppliers or choose Russia and China, which don’t require the same levels of nonproliferation guarantees and provide nuclear technologies on a largely transactional basis.

As the drive for zero-carbon energy accelerates in this and future decades, nuclear power is increasingly on the menu of options for carbon-dependent countries. The large reactor market outside of Russia and China exists in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the U.K. But developing economy nations are more interested in small reactors that are less expensive and more suitable to their needs.

These next-generation technologies will be the next, and perhaps final, battleground for international nuclear market dominance.

Creating a coalition of democratic nation nuclear suppliers that collectively possess an integrated component chain, efficient construction capabilities, and a common view on the value of nonproliferation and security can be a powerful incentive for newcomer nuclear nations. The U.S.-ROK summit agreements are a first step toward that potential partnership.

If skillfully developed, this coordination could stave off China’s and Russia’s control of the global nuclear market in this century. And that would benefit global security.

But the Biden-Moon commitments can’t languish on paper. They need to be realized in real time. The agreement at the summit to resuscitate the High-Level Bilateral Commission, which is the main forum for U.S.-ROK nuclear discussions, should result in its being convened over the Summer to begin mapping out a joint strategy that can be completed by years end.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security