Construction, also known as "technology giving rise to civilization," has served as a barometer to gauge the viability and development of society. Then, where is Hyundai E&C’s core capabilities and technologies headed towards?
Korean nuclear power plants gain spotlight again
On January 16, Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol, during his state visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), attended a ceremony to mark the operation of the third reactor at Barakah. The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant (Barakah NPP), was the first Korean NPP to be exported to the Middle East back in 2009 by Korean companies including Hyundai E&C. Currently units 1 and 2 are under commercial operation, unit 3 has completed construction, and unit 4 is slated for completion next year. The four reactors, once all operational, can meet 20% of UAE’s electricity demand, thus drawing huge attention.
[ View of the Barakah NPP in the UAE, the first nuclear power plant to be constructed in the Middle East by Hyundai E&C-led consortium ]
On the day, President Yoon in his commemorative address said, "It is time for both countries to promote additional cooperation in NPP and create expanded results such as joint entry in third countries." The Barakah NPP is currently operating APR1400, a 1400MW light-water reactor designed by South Korea's technology. The APR1400 is another masterpiece of Hyundai E&C, which began operation at the end of last year, and is also the latest reactor in Shin Hanul 1, the 27th NPP in Korea.
Accelerated momentum in Korea to capture SMR market
Korea's nuclear power industry is facing a new leap forward. While gaining momentum in entering the large-scale nuclear power plant market with the APR1400, which has already proven its performance in the Middle East market, we are accelerating to target small modular reactors (SMRs) for which countries are competing for technology development, in areas where large-NPPs are difficult to be built.
[ Image of the interior of the containment vessel shielding building (left) and the nuclear steam supply system (right) of the small module reactor ‘SMR-160’, which Hyundai E&C began working on detailed design and commercialization of the standard model with US-based firm Holtec ]
A SMR is a small nuclear reactor with power output of less than 300 MW, and is characterized by integrating the pressurizer, steam generator, and core all into one container. Because it is an integrated type, it can be pre-fabricated in the factory. Since the size of the reactor is small, it can be placed in a water tank or cooled by natural convection, thus ensuring high safety. Thanks to this, large NPPs can only be built on sites adjacent to water sources, such as coastal waters where cooling water can be supplied; however SMRs can be built in limited spaces, in any climate and any terrain.
In December of last year, the Korean government announced a plan to invest a total of 400 billion won in the development of a Korean-type SMR over the next eight years. In 2012, Korea received approval for the standard design of SMART, an SMR with 100MW capacity, for the first time in the world. In fact, Korea is implementing commercialization of SMART with Saudi Arabia.
The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KNHP), a nuclear power plant operator, are also developing the basic design of 179MW innovative SMR (i-SMR). The government's goal is to have it approved by 2028 and export it in the 2030s. When put together, the four i-SMRs can replace an existing 600MW thermal power plant. According to the government's announcement, a large NPP takes 56 months from placing concrete to loading nuclear fuel, but i-SMR can be pre-fabricated in the factory and can be completed in just 24 months.
Regulatory bodies are also keeping pace with this SMR development trend. The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) decided to preemptively prepare licensing regulations for the export of Korean SMRs. As the design and technology are different from those of large NPPs, the government intends to communicate with developers from the initial design stage to create an efficient and speedy licensing system.
Technology competition with military powerhouses is inevitable
[ SMRs were originally developed by diverting technology used in nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers by the US and the former Soviet Union for civil power generation ]
SMRs were originally developed by US and the former Soviet Union, diverting technologies for nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers to be used for civil power generation. That is why, a country with stronger the military power, the better the SMR technology is.
Since 2019, Russia has been operating Akademik Lomonosov, the world's first floating NPP with two 35MW SMRs applied to vessels. All equipment is integrated and can be easily connected to the existing power grid. Russia is implementing a plan to supply power with offshore SMRs to remote areas that used to rely on thermal power plants.
[ A bird’s eye view of the SMR-160, a standard model of a small module reactor being jointly developed by Hyundai E&C and Holtec. The SMR-160 will be deployed for the first time at the decommissioning site of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in the US ]
On land, the United States prevails. Holtec International (hereafter Holtec), which Hyundai E&C has partnered with, is developing a 160MW class SMR. The 'SMR-160', a general-purpose nuclear reactor that can be deployed without regional and environmental limitations such as in deserts and polar regions, was selected as the model for the 'Next Generation Reactor Demonstration Program' of the US Department of Energy after undergoing a safety validation. Currently, it has passed the first stage of preliminary licensing of the nuclear reactor design of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and is in the process of obtaining approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC). In particular, Hyundai E&C, a leading NPP player in Korea, directly participates in the detailed design of the standard model for commercialization, garnering high expectations. Hyundai E&C and Holtec will be the first to deploy the standard model of the SMR-160 upon completion of its design, at the decommissioning site of the Oyster Creek NPP.
In addition, NuScale Power in the US has received a design certification from the USNRC at the end of 2020 and plans to build a 462MW nuclear power plant complex in Idaho by 2030 by bundling 6 SMR units, and Microsoft (MS) founder Bill Gates has established TerraPower and is developing 'Natrium', a 345 MW next-generation SMR with GE-Hitachi. As the name suggests, ‘Natrium’ uses liquid sodium instead of water as a coolant to cool down the reactor while storing heat at the same time. This SMR can transform uranium-238*, which could not be used in existing nuclear power plants, into plutonium capable of nuclear fission, by colliding high-velocity neutrons with nuclear fuel. This type of reactor using high-velocity neutrons is called a fast breeder reactor because the fuel available for nuclear fission increases during operation.
*Uranium 238 is the most abundant isotope of uranium in nature and accounts for 99% of natural uranium.
China is also entering the SMR market in earnest
[ China National Nuclear Corporation (CNCC) is increasing its presence in the nuclear power market by officially starting the construction of ‘Linglong(玲龍) One’, a commercial SMR model in Changjiang, Hainan ]
About 70 SMRs are currently under development in the US, Russia, UK and France, including Korea. Half of them are 3rd generation light water reactors like conventional large nuclear power plants, and the rest are 4th generation SMRs using sodium. Originally, only nuclear reactors with an output of 300 MW or less were called SMRs, but with the recent development of safety technologies, even larger-capacity reactors are classified as SMRs if they are integrated types.
China, which has recently emerged as a new powerful player in the nuclear power market, has also fully initiated SMR projects. China is building the SMR ‘Linglong One’ in Changjiang, southern Hainan. Linglong One is the only SMR currently under construction in the world. Russia operates offshore SMRs, but none have been built on land. When Linglong One starts full-scale operation in 2026, it is expected to produce 125 MW of power, equivalent to 40 onshore wind turbines. China plans to supply heat and electricity for seawater desalination with this SMR.
Domestic construction and shipbuilding companies also invest in SMR
[ Hyundai E&C CEO Yoon Young-joon (right) and Holtec CEO & President Dr. Kris Singh, signed an agreement on the development and commercialization of the first commercial model of SMR-160 with commitment to accelerate progress in the field of SMRs ]
The SMR market is expected to grow rapidly. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the SMR market will grow at an average annual rate of 22% by 2040. The UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) also predicted that the global SMR market will reach 250 to 400 billion pounds (approximately 380 to 609 trillion won) in 2035.
As a result, there is a fierce competition among domestic companies. Korean construction companies are working with foreign companies to accelerate their entry in the SMR market. Holtec, which has decided to enter the UK nuclear power plant market, has already selected Hyundai E&C as its construction partner, and both firms are closely collaborating. Holtec plans to build 32 units of 160MW SMR in UK by 2050, therefore Hyundai E&C's order volume in the field is also expected to rise.
In October of last year, during the project launching ceremony, Hyundai E&C President Yoon Young-joon said, “We will solidify our position as a game changer in the energy market by combining the world’s best technology and business capabilities,” adding, “We will lead the realization of carbon neutrality and the development of the nuclear ecosystem through close partnership in the next-generation nuclear power business, including decommissioning.”
In addition to partnership with Holtec, Hyundai E&C is focusing its efforts on securing Korea-exclusive technology by signing an agreement with the KAERI to jointly develop light-water reactor type SMR construction technology and to develop next-generation non-light-water reactor type SMR technology together.
[ SMR market is actively attracting investments from not only construction but also shipbuilding companies ]
Construction companies are not the only ones paying attention to SMR. Shipbuilders are also joining the SMR investment trends. Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, and Samsung Heavy Industries are entering the SMR business suitable for offshore NPPs, while HD Hyundai's shipbuilding intermediate holding company Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering signed an investment contract worth $30 million (about 36.8 billion won) with TerraPower.
In addition to the advantages of excellent safety and reduced construction costs and time, SMRs can easily replace old power plants, which is considered as main drivers of SMR growth. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) said in a report late last year, "SMRs can be operated using existing infrastructure such as electricity exchangers and coal power plant turbines," adding, "When operated based on existing infrastructure and facilities, SMRs can reduce fundamental investment costs and eliminate the need to install additional large-scale infrastructures for power transmission and distribution.”
The Spectrum magazine, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in the US, published an article titled ‘The Future of Fission Reactors May Be Small’ on January 16th. In this article, Giorgio Locatelli, a professor at the Technical University of Milan in Italy, said, "In the next 15 to 20 years, there will be an opportunity for SMRs to be commercialized and widely used." For this reason, SMRs will undoubtedly present a promising future, if not the only future of the nuclear power industry.
Written by Lee Young-wan
Lee graduated from Seoul National University's Department of Microbiology and completed a collaboration program in science history and science philosophy at the graduate school of the Seoul National University. After working as a science reporter for the Chosun Ilbo for 19 years following Dong-A Ilbo and Dong-A Science, he moved to Chosun Media Group Chosun Biz from September last year. He has served as president of the Korea Science Journalists Association since 2019, and received the Korea Science and Culture Award of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the GSK Medical Journalist of the Year Award of Korea Science Journalists Association, Korea Foundation for the Advancement Science & Creativity Science Award, and the National Academy of Engineering of Korea Haedong Award.
◆ This column is based on the author’s subjective view and may differ from the editorial direction of Hyundai E&C.