Nuclear Energy and South Korea

Trevor Hyman
December 14, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: One of the Korean Nuclear Reactors, TRIGA-MARK II. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

South Korea is well known for their progressiveness and their rapid advancement of technology. Their rapid economic and social growth has allowed South Korea to quickly rise into a prominent role in global economics. To power the growing population, South Korea has turned to nuclear energy. After South Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957, South Korea established its Office of Atomic Energy to begin research working towards a nuclear reactor. President Park Chung-Hee's political leadership allowed for the development of a nuclear power program by focusing labor on manufacturing exports in order to move Korea away from a traditionally agrarian economy. [1]

Trouble with the IAEA

In 2004, South Korea went under investigation by the IAEA as the IAEA had serious concerns that South Korea was conducting research with intent to create nuclear weapons. The IAEA saw discrepancies surrounding South Korea's indigenous uranium ore. The South Koreans had previously claimed that they mined the ore from mines in South Korea, when, conclusively, the IAEA determined that the uranium ore, though a "very small quantity", was being enriched. Additionally, the IAEA found that Seoul had conducted experiments separating plutonium from depleted uranium, all signs of possible nuclear weapons research. Since the investigation, South Korea has "provided active cooperation" and has since disclosed all nuclear activities to the IAEA. [2] South Korea now gets its natural uranium from Canada and the U.S., and has the uranium enriched by the U.S. Department of Energy. [3]

Nuclear Politics and Economics

South Korea has the sixth largest nuclear power capacity in the world and is looking to expand its influence through nuclear power exports. [4] The United Arab Emirates have contacted the South Koreans to assist them in the development of a nuclear power plant in the region. It appears as if South Korea is looking to establish a temporary cleaner energy alternative for countries that currently have access to lots of fossil fuels. Transactions and future policy changes made by the South Koreans hope to reflect the growing public opinion that world powers should encourage clean energy use. South Korea additionally hopes to establish itself as an energy-intensive and export- oriented leader in reducing carbon emissions. [5] See Fig. 1 for an example of one of the nuclear reactors the South Koreans have built.

© Trevor Hyman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] Y. H. Choi, "South Korea's Economic Development and the Evolving Role of the Government: Energy and Water," J. East Asian Aff. 25, 115 (2011).

[2] P. Kerr, "IAEA: Seoul's Nuclear Sins in Past," Arms Control Today 34, 36 (2004).

[3] J. A. Yager, "The Nuclear Policies of the Republic of China and the Republic of Korean: A Comparative Analysis," Asian Perspect. 3, 81 (1979).

[4] S. Jasanoff and S. H. Kim, "Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea," Minerva 47, 119 (2009).

[5] "Korea Energy Master Plan: Outlook and Policies to 2035," Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, January 2014.