+ A

U.S. gives Korea Saudi nuclear offer: sources

Sept 18,2019
The United States has proposed Korea become a partner in a plan to construct 40 nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to multiple sources in the energy industry.

The Donald Trump administration’s so-called Middle East Marshall Plan envisions U.S. companies building nuclear power plants in the Middle East, fending off Russian and Chinese attempts to exert influence in the region. It was promoted by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

The JoongAng llbo reported exclusively Tuesday that it spoke with multiple senior figures in the energy industry during the 24th World Energy Congress held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Sept. 11.

According to the sources, five U.S. experts including Robert McFarlane, a member of the board of advisers of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and president of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, visited Korea in mid-June and met with high-level figures in the Korean nuclear energy industry.

McFarlane, a former national security adviser to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, is said to have visited Korea to discuss the Middle East Marshall Plan, according to the energy industry sources on the sidelines of the congress in Abu Dhabi, and a possible role for Korea’s advanced nuclear power technology.

One source said that McFarlane’s visit to Korea came about because of “a signal from the top level at the White House.” Around that period, Korean government officials visited Washington “to discuss the issue of forming a consortium,” the source said.

A deal won by Korea to build four nuclear reactors in the UAE, excluding maintenance, amounted to around $24 billion. Extrapolating from that, a contract to build 40 nuclear reactors could amount to some $244 billion.

Washington may have reached out to Seoul because Korea recently was shortlisted for a nuclear project in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is looking to build two nuclear power plants with a capacity of 2.8 gigawatts by 2030, with the preferred bidders being Korea, the United States, France, China and Russia. The United States scored relatively lower in the technical evaluation, so it may be reaching out to Korea, which received a relatively high score, according to the source.

There are only a handful of countries in the world with the technological capability to take on multiple nuclear power projects. Korea, an ally of the United States militarily, is seen as the country with nuclear technology that Washington can trust most to take on its construction vision in the Middle East.

“Taking into consideration global dynamics, if Korea and the United States link hands right now, it will open an opportunity for a virtual oligopoly of the global nuclear power plant export market,” said a CEO of an energy company who asked not to be named. “While the Korean government is pushing for a policy to phase out nuclear energy, this involves too much money to review ideologically. Thus it will be prudent for both countries to actively pursue the matter.”

BY CHAE IN-TAEK, MOON HEE-CHUL [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]