Korean Group's UAE Victory Surprises Few Insiders

Korean Group's UAE Victory

Surprises Few Nuke Insiders

By Nancy E. Roth, Managing Editor

[Note: This article originally appeared in FCW #358, January 6, 2010]

South Korea’s long pursuit of nuclear know-how paid off big in the waning days of 2009, when United Arab Emirates officials announced that a consortium of mostly Korean nuclear giants had won a plum$20.4 billion contract to build the first nuclear reactors in the Middle East.

Early news reports on the Dec. 27 announcement focused on the low bid of the consortium of Korea Electric Power Co., Doosan, Samsung, Hyundai and Westinghouse—which came in an astonishing $16 billion below that of France’s AREVA/Electricite de France-led consortium.

Apparently the EPR design’s redundant safety systems require a heavier load of steel and concrete, adding to its construction price. The French, who drastically underbid for their EPR contract at Olkiluoto, Finland, were clearly in no mood to offer any more loss leaders. The KEPCO team also beat the bid of a consortium that General Electric-Hitachi headed.

Korea: Economic Development Through Nuclear

But the story that has emerged from longtime industry observers and participants is that in effect Korea began assembling its bid package for the UAE tender 30 years ago, when it first set nuclear technology self-reliance as a national goal.

“A lot of us have seen this coming,” veteran nuclear-industry specialist Edward Kee, vice president of NERA Economic Consulting, told FCW. While the nuclear industry in the U.S. foundered in the 1980s, Korea, lacking native energy resources and fully dependent on expensive energy imports, strove “with a singularity of purpose” to master nuclear energy technology, he told FCW.

“Korea decided to make this a national effort, with a multiyear plan to develop manufacturing capacity as well as research and training programs tied in with the universities,” added Kee.

Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Senior Vice President Myung-Jae Song offered the particulars in a 2008 article he authored for Nuclear Engineering International, noting that in its early years the Korean nuclear industry relied on foreign contractors to build and operate its first nuclear plants.

But after the first three reactors, KEPCO “geared up on self-reliance in construction technology” and performed “6% in architect engineering, 40% in equipment supply and 100% in construction” for the next six units, wrote Song. Subsequently Korean companies took the lead role in all nuclear construction, hiring foreign companies only as subcontractors.

By the early 1990s, however, Korean companies introduced the Optimized Power Reactor 1000, based on the System 80+ design licensed from the American firm Combustion Engineering (later acquired by Westinghouse). As Korea’s first standard plant design concept, the OPR-1000 was a national declaration of nuclear technology independence. Six of the 1000-MWe units are now operating there.

One of the OPR1000’s offspring is the APR-1400, a 1,350-MWe Generation III evolutionary design, two of which are now under construction at Shin Kori and six more to be built by 2021. It was the APR-1000 that won the UAE nod, allowing Korea to emerge as a global nuclear technology exporter.

Supply Chain, UAE Relationships Helped

Kee also pointed out that Korea’s vast nuclear manufacturing infrastructure also would have worked to the KEPCO consortium’s advantage in the UAE tender.

In an all-day 159-slide pre-application presentation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last November KEPCO included a section on Doosan’s manufacturing capabilities, including the facility shown above right. That know-how was undoubtedly highlighted in the UAE proposal as well. KEPCO plans to apply for NRC certification of the APR-1400 in October 2011.

Korean companies have developed longstanding commercial relationships and a reputation as reliable, on-time, within-budget project managers in the UAE through their involvement in major infrastructure ventures over several years, according to Kee. That “greased the path” for KEPCO, he said.

Westinghouse Role: TBD

The UAE imposes strict confidentiality requirements on its contractors and bidders, making it difficult to ascertain what role Westinghouse, the only non-Korean member of the KEPCO consortium, will play in the project.

Some press accounts have hinted that UAE officials may have felt obligated to choose a team with an American participant in view of the U.S. government’s recent ratification of a 1-2-3 Agreement with the Middle Eastern nation. The Obama administration in recent months has showcased the agreement as an ideal for nuclear commerce in the region, because at the outset the UAE declared itself uninterested in enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which could feed a weapons program.

But it appears more likely that Westinghouse is involved because of the technology licensing agreements it still holds with Korean nuclear industry participants. Some have suggested that Westinghouse, with its 20% owner Shaw, would be involved in component design—but its Korean partners will undoubtedly perform all manufacturing.


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Joan Stepsen
Computer geeks