American University of Beirut

Middle East Nuclear Energy Monitor 2019 - A Decade Later: South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Exports to the Middle East

​2019 Annual Report

June Park, Pamela Rizkallah and Ali Ahmad, Energy Policy and Security Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), AUB
January 2020

Executive Sum​​mary​

The nuclear power program of The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is South Korea’s first sale of its nuclear technology and services abroad and its only one since the deal was signed by the two countries in 2009. The Barakah project, named after the site where it is located, has often been described as a role model for nuclear newcomers. However, as with most nuclear projects, it has been hampered with delays, with the latest expected operation date set in 2020, an almost three-year delay following the initially planned operation date. Even though there is not much official information detailing the reasons behind these delays, except for ensuring the plant’s operational readiness, speculations about other underlying reasons abound. Challenges related to the relationship between Abu Dhabi and its South Korean partners, unsatisfactory human resources development, and cracks in the reactors’ containment building have been reported. The project’s delays translate into economic and reputational consequences that affect the UAE, South Korea and the nuclear industry at large.

​From the Republic of Korea (ROK)’s perspective, the delays in the UAE nuclear project exhibited the delivery constraints of ROK’s nuclear exports. As the anticipated date of Saudi Arabia’s first bid to build a nuclear power plant draws near, South Korea is facing challenges domestically and abroad, with a domestic energy policy on nuclear phase-out that is at odds with continued nuclear power technology sales overseas. The global nuclear power export market is fierce, with strong competition from China and Russia. Building on its experience in working in the UAE, South Korea will likely continue to be in the run for future nuclear power sales in the region, but will face challenges in terms of the business model and strategies. The likelihood of South Korea cooperating with the US for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear market is a key scenario that deserves attention, but the current dynamics of US domestic politics also present uncertainties.​

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