Approximately 50 people met in a community hall on the country’s southeastern coast last month to hear from South Korean authorities in a low-key presentation.
In Gampo village, a new atomic research centre — the country’s biggest ever — is now under development, and the government announced plans to build a test version of a small nuclear reactor there, according to the audience members in attendance. In design, the modular reactor would be comparable to those used to power seagoing vessels such as icebreakers and cargo ships, and it would be finished by 2027.
However, it is possible that this superior technology has other goals in mind. According to nuclear experts, the project has the potential to enable South Korea to realise a long-held ambition of constructing a nuclear-powered submarine. As its most powerful partner, the United States has been vocally hostile to this policy for decades now.
Australia said in September that it will develop nuclear-powered submarines with assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom, as the allies sought to counter China’s expanding military dominance. According to the rules of a treaty with the United States that prohibits it from utilising nuclear materials for military reasons, any such relationship has been off-limits for South Korea for over 50 years.
President Moon Jae-administration in’s has argued for the repeal of the ban, claiming that developing nuclear submarines is essential to fighting North Korea’s intentions to do the same. North Korea has argued that the restriction is unconstitutional. In recent months, as the North’s advancement has increased fears about South Korea’s readiness, a greater feeling of urgency has emerged. In recent years, the North has conducted a series of submarine-launched ballistic missile tests, and it stated in January that it was developing a nuclear-powered submarine design.
Because of the superpower competition between China and the United States, there is rising concern about an arms race in the Indo-Pacific area. On Monday, Australia announced a military agreement with South Korea, which was described as the “largest-ever bilateral military agreement between Australia and an Asian country.”
SMRs, also known as small modular reactors, are being developed as a carbon-free source of energy in many countries, including South Korea, which is not the only one doing so. However, one of the company’s projects, the Advanced Reactor for Multiple Applications, has garnered particular interest.
The nation has 24 nuclear reactors, which provide 29 percent of its power and are in operation. Since the beginning of the 1990s, it has also built a total of 21 submarines. However, all of these vessels are propelled by batteries that are charged with diesel engines, and they must surface frequently in order to refuel or replenish the air supply to their engines. Nuclear-powered submarines have the ability to remain underwater for months at a time and travel far more quickly.
South Korea’s initial effort to create a nuclear-powered submarine, carried out under the auspices of a clandestine task force known as 362 and began in 2003, was shelved due to political opposition.
It was discovered that the institute’s scientists had surreptitiously enriched uranium in 2000, dabbling with a technique that might be used to manufacture nuclear bombs, and the clandestine research was abandoned in 2004 as a result.
South Korea, on the other hand, has never given up hope, despite the fact that the main obstacles have historically been political rather than scientific. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based think tank, if an Asian arms race were to erupt, “both Japan and South Korea would be capable of producing nuclear-powered submarines or surface vehicles.”
Several years ago, Moon Chung-in, a former special advisor to Mr. Moon, said that President Donald J. Trump made a surprise suggestion: Why didn’t South Korea just purchase American nuclear submarines instead? However, due of proliferation worries, Washington did not follow up on this, nor did it assist South Korea in obtaining nuclear fuel for submarines as a result of this.
When it comes to fuel, South Korea’s advanced reactor employs 19.75 percent enriched uranium, while commercial nuclear power plants use uranium that has been enhanced to less than 5 percent of its original purity. However, although uranium with a comparable degree of enrichment has been used to power some of the world’s nuclear submarines, it is very uncommon for compact modular reactors now under construction to employ fuel that is 19.75 percent enriched or higher.
He has not yet stated his position on the issue. Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate for Mr. Moon’s ruling party in the March election, has not yet stated his position on the problem. South Korea’s primary opposition candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, has said that he would prioritise enhancing the country’s satellite and aerial monitoring capabilities against North Korea before investing in a nuclear submarine.