South Korean conglomerate SK has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with US energy firm Terrapower to seek cooperation in connection with small-sized nuclear reactors, according to a statement from Terrapower on May 17.  

Terrapower is a nuclear reactor design and development engineering company founded by Bill Gates in 2008. 

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Under the MoU, the companies will work together “in support of commercialising advanced reactor technologies,” according to the statement.

“In order to contribute to global net-zero [carbon], SK has considered investing in next-generation small modular reactor (SMR) companies since last year,” said a spokesperson for SK.

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors with a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts (MW) per unit — about one-third of a conventional nuclear power reactor’s generating capacity.

The competitive advantage of SMRs comes from affordability and size, as they can be easily manufactured and shipped, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US Department of Energy says it has the potential for enhanced safety as it minimises the transportation and handling of detrimental nuclear material.

Terrapower launched the SMR system paired with a molten salt storage unit in 2020, and has developed the Natrium technology, which features a 345MW sodium fast reactor (SFR) combined with a molten salt energy storage system, which is a type of SMR technology. The company announced the establishment of the Natrium technology plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in November last year with an American nuclear energy company, GE-Hitachi. Terrapower is currently working towards commercialisation by 2028.

Meanwhile, other Korean competitors, including GS Energy, Doosan Enerbility and Samsung C&T, have signed MoUs with NuScale Power, another American nuclear reactor design company. 

“With this MoU, it is expected that there will be great progress in SMR business development through stronger cooperation between NuScale and Korean strategic investors,” Byungsoo Lee, vice president of Samsung C&T, said in a statement on April 26.

Return to nuclear energy

These investments in SMR technology stem from global attention to nuclear energy, professor Dong-wook Jerng, the head of Korean Nuclear society, tells fDi.

“The recent overseas energy trend is the main reason why high-profile Korean firms made investment decisions in nuclear advanced technologies, and the US steps forward in this industry,” Mr Jerng said. 

“For sure, the current situation of regaining attention internationally to nuclear energy affects domestic political decisions — and not only in Korea — you know that investment in SMR technology is attractive when you see other countries such as the US, France and the UK eager to engage in this field”

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, rejected the nuclear phase-out policy introduced by the previous administration and made it clear at the nuclear energy safety committee seminar on March 25 that he plans to revitalise investment in the nuclear power industry to reduce its energy dependence. 

Mr Yoon has emphasised the significance of securing advanced nuclear power technologies, including small modular reactor technology, and becoming a major exporter of nuclear energy technologies.

“For advanced reactors and small modular reactors development and export promotion, our two countries’ civil nuclear industries committed to work together,” Mr Yoon said in a joint press conference with US president Joe Biden on May 21.