After decades of developing indigenous nuclear reactor technology, South Korea in 2010 voiced ambitions that entail exporting 80 nuclear reactors by 2030.

In 2009, the country saw its first major deal, winning a lucrative $20.4 billion contract to build four APR-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates. That technology is an advanced version of the Westinghouse System 80+ and is the design basis for Shin Kori Units 3 and 4, which are currently under construction in South Korea.

Since then, despite limitations posed by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the global financial crisis, and scandals plaguing South Korea’s domestic nuclear industry itself (see “South Korea Walks an Energy Tightrope” in the November 2013 issue of POWER), the country has a $130 million agreement to build Jordan’s first research reactor by 2015. It has also signed nuclear cooperation agreements with 27 states and provided training programs for countries that are new to nuclear. Though it has tempered its ambitions, it remains intent on securing contracts for nuclear technology in India, Vietnam, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, as well as in China and the U.S.

Analysts say the bulk of the country’s export ambitions will be centered on the Middle East, however, where several countries are looking for new power sources to limit the potential economic and environmental costs of using fossil fuel for power generation. In 2012, South Korean firms dominated six of the top 10 engineering, procurement, and construction contracts for oil, gas, and petrochemicals in the Middle East.

Among its strategic hurdles is that the country must first secure a long-term nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. that was set expire in March 2014 (but that was extended for two more years in April 2013). The U.S. and South Korea are close trade allies, experts note, and South Korea is highly dependent on U.S. nuclear material and technology. Talks have faltered because South Korea wants the U.S. to give it advanced consent to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel originating from the U.S., but U.S. law prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states like South Korea from engaging in such “alteration in form or content,” which can produce fissile material.

South Korea’s Economic Institute of America earlier this year noted that South Korea’s export strengths lie in the expansion of using nuclear energy for desalination as well as nuclear skills. It also urged that that the country promote small modular reactors—such as the nuclear safety–certified “SMART” developed by the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute and which is not based on U.S. technology—to minimize South Korea’s reliance on the U.S.

Then, it noted that South Korea should focus efforts on “countries that can afford nuclear energy,” not those with limited financial capacity that have made supplier-provided project financing a key criterion for selection. And finally, it called on the South Korean government to deal swiftly and decisively with the documentation scandal that has plagued its domestic nuclear sector to “ensure that it does not damage the [country’s] image as a leading nation in nuclear quality and safety.”

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor.