Yoon vows to rebuild Korea's nuclear power industry through overseas expansion

President Yoon Suk-yeol listens to an official from Doosan Enerbility during his visit to the headquarters of the nuclear power plant maker in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, Wednesday. Yonhap

President denounces predecessor's phase-out policy as 'foolish'

By Nam Hyun-woo

President Yoon Suk-yeol pledged, Wednesday, to make all-out efforts to support Korean firms bid for nuclear power plant projects overseas, criticizing the former Moon Jae-in administration's policy of phasing out nuclear power from Korea's energy portfolio as being “foolish.”

Yoon has vowed to rebuild Korea's nuclear power industry, claiming that the Moon administration's policy has undermined the global competitiveness of Korean firms. Following Yoon's remarks, the government rolled out a series of measures to rehabilitate domestic nuclear power firms and parts suppliers.

“I wonder if the previous administration has ever seen the facilities here and surrounding industrial ecosystem with their eyes before making decisions on the nuclear phase-out,” Yoon said during his visit to the headquarters of Doosan Enerbility, formerly called Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction, in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province.

“It is very regrettable that the country's nuclear power industry has been suffering from difficulties for years, and it is time to correct that immediately,” Yoon said.

Yoon is the first Korean president to visit a nuclear power plant.

Doosan Enerbility had been one of the top players in the global nuclear power generation market, supplying reactors, turbines, boilers and other facilities not just domestically but also to overseas markets.

Its profitability, however, withered in the mid-2010s after its parent Doosan Group's financial difficulties were compounded by the Moon administration's drive to phase out nuclear power. After piling up losses and debts, the company requested a bailout from state-run lenders in 2020 and had been subject to a creditor-led debt restructuring program until February this year.

Due to Doosan Enerbility's slump, its partner firms were also mired in financial difficulties, resulting in an industry-wide slowdown.

According to Rep. Yoon Han-hong of the ruling People Power Party, the combined sales of more than 270 nuclear power vendor companies located in South Gyeongsang Province declined by 38 percent to 10.4 trillion won ($8.03 billion) in 2018 from 16.1 trillion won in 2016. During the same period, the number of jobs at those companies also dropped by 14 percent. Moon announced his nuclear power phase-out policy in 2017.

“The global market for nuclear power plants is wide open, as countries, including Saudi Arabia, Czech Republic, Poland and the U.S., are recognizing nuclear power as an important energy source for their carbon neutrality goals,” Yoon said. “If we hadn't been acting foolish in the past five years and made efforts to strengthen our nuclear power ecosystem, the country could have built up an unrivaled capacity,” Yoon said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol looks into a miniature of APR1400 next-generation reactor at Doosan Enerbility's headquarters in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, Wednesday. Yonhap

Following Yoon's comments, the energy ministry announced a set of measures to support vendor companies.

Within this year, the government will place orders worth 92.5 billion won, encompassing spare parts for existing nuclear power plants and the designs of Shin-Hanul 3 and 4 reactors, whose construction was halted in 2017. The ministry added additional orders worth 1 trillion won will be made until 2025.

For the companies' sustainability, the government also pledged to strengthen its efforts to win contracts for nuclear power projects in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively. Prague plans to select a supplier for its project to build a nuclear reactor by 2024, while Warsaw seeks to build a total of six reactors by 2043.

“Major countries are now staging a heated competition to take the lead in the future nuclear power market,” Yoon said. “I and high-ranking officials of our government will spare no efforts to assist domestic firms' sales bids.”

Yoon is expected to begin making sales pitches at next week's NATO leaders' meeting in Spain. An official at the presidential office said it is preparing bilateral meetings with the leaders of countries participating the summit in order to “discuss Korean companies' bids for their nuclear power projects.”

“Including the Czech Republic, a number of Eastern European nations are increasing their demand for nuclear power, and we are one of the countries seeking to become their supplier,” the official said. “We seek to show our strengths in nuclear power hoping to achieve certain results.”

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