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Britain turns to South Korea in scramble to boost nuclear power

The Shin Kori No. 1 reactor, right, and No. 2 reactor of Korea Electric Power in Ulsan - REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won
The Shin Kori No. 1 reactor, right, and No. 2 reactor of Korea Electric Power in Ulsan - REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

South Korea is in talks to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK as ministers scramble to boost the country's energy supplies.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, has met state-owned Korea Electric Power Corporation to discuss investment in the British nuclear industry and it is understood that talks with officials are ongoing.

It comes after Russia's war on Ukraine forced an urgent re-think over energy security, with Moscow last week shutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and an EU embargo on Russian oil inching closer.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, wants up to eight new nuclear reactors to be built in the UK by 2050 to supply up to a quarter of projected electricity demand as part of a race to increase the UK's energy independence.

France's state-owned EDF is currently the only developer planning new nuclear projects in the UK, apart from its minority Chinese state partner whose involvement in the sector ministers are believed to be looking to block.

A Whitehall source said ministers want to work with "like-minded, democratic allies" to develop further projects. Discussions are believed to be at an early stage, with no particular plant deal yet on the table.

The UK is keen to boost trade ties with South Korea, with Mr Johnson and South Korea's President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol pledging to "deepen digital, industrial and military cooperation" during a phone-call in March.

South Korea's interest in the UK would mark a return to the industry after its plans to rescue a floundering nuclear plant project in Moorside, Cumbria, fell through in 2018 amid delays concluding the deal.

The country is the world's fifth-largest nuclear power generator with 24 reactors providing electricity. This power has been credited with helping the growth of South Korea's globally dominant microchip industry.

Its nuclear industry has suffered amid flip-flopping government policy but the newly elected president has pledged to reverse his predecessor's plans to phase-out the technology in an effort to hit climate targets.

Nuclear power currently provides about 18pc of the UK's annual electricity but this is set to fall unless new stations are built, with all but one of the country's ageing nuclear fleet set to close by 2028.

Hinkley Point C, in Somerset, is the only replacement plant currently being built and is set to come online in mid-2026.

However, its developer EDF is reviewing its projected costs of £22bn-£23bn and timelines amid global inflation and challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government is in talks with EDF about building a second plant, Sizewell C in Suffolk. Chinese business China General Nuclear is a minority investor in both Hinkley and Sizewell C, but ministers are believed to be looking for ways to end its role in Sizewell C amid concern about China's role in critical national infrastructure.

Attracting other developers to the UK's nuclear industry has been difficult, however. Japanese business Toshiba walked away from the planned Moorside project in 2018 amid financial problems at its Westinghouse nuclear arm, which was then sold to Canadian asset manager Brookfield.

Hitachi later withdrew from its planned Horizon project in Wales, despite support offered by then-energy secretary Greg Clark including the Government potentially taking a one-third equity stake in the project and offering a guaranteed electricity price of £75 per MWh.

The Government has recently introduced a new financing mechanism aimed at helping developing nuclear projects by allowing them to cut costs by recouping costs in advance.