PacNet #48 – Are small modular reactors the solution to growing energy and climate problems?

The increasingly dominant view in the energy expert community is that nuclear power has a role to play in achieving the 17 “sustainable development goals” identified by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (and intended to be reached by 2030). There has thus been rising interest in nuclear power development in several parts of the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific, where growth is the strongest.

This renewed interest comes not long after the failed “nuclear renaissance” of the 2000s. That renaissance never materialized primarily because the devastating accidents at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 led many countries to reconsider their nuclear power ambitions. Now, however, national energy and climate objectives are again driving these same countries to put the nuclear option back on the table. This interest has only grown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the subsequent efforts to choke off Russian natural gas and oil exports, and the resulting increase in global prices for fossil fuels.

Many believe that “small modular reactors” (SMRs) and their companion “floating nuclear power plants” (FNPPs) hold considerable promise and that they may be “the next big thing” in the nuclear power market, even though they are not new concepts—they date back to the 1950s. To explore this further and, in particular, the implications for the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific Forum recently commissioned three papers: one by Victor Nian that unpacks SMR/FNPP technologies and discusses their applicability in the region; one by Jor-Shan Choi that examines the nuclear safety, security, and safeguards considerations associated with SMRs/FNPPs; and one by Miles Pomper, Ferenc Dalnoki Veress, Dan Zhukov, and Sanjana Gogna that addresses the potential geopolitical implications of SMR/FNPP deployments.

Seven key insights can be teased out from the papers, which are published in a just-released volume on “Small Modular Reactors: The Next Phase for Nuclear Power in the Indo-Pacific.” These insights include the following:

  1. SMR/FNPPs have appealing features

SMRs and FNPPs are popular because they are small, mobile, flexible, have user-centric characteristics, and are empowered by the advanced (and safer) Generation IV technologies. What’s more, the advantage of SMRs and FNPPs is that they have the potential to offer cost-competitive and clean energy without the shortcomings associated with traditional large-scale nuclear power plants. SMRs and FNPPs can be easily integrated into national energy planning, especially for newcomer countries with small grid sizes or off-grid/remote communities or for countries that are dependent heavily on energy imports.

  1. SMR/FNPP technology is not yet ready, and its prospects are unclear

Most SMR and FNPP designs are still in the research phase or under development. Few are deployed. In the Indo-Pacific, the land- or marine-based reactor types of interest are water-cooled, high-temperature gas, molten salt, or aqueous-fueled. Two reactors are currently deployed in the region: the KLT40S, a pressurized water reactor FNPP developed by OKBM (Russia) and commissioned in Pevek in the Russian far east that is designed to generate 70 megawatts of energy; and the HTR-PM, a high-temperature gas reactor developed by the China Nuclear Engineering Corporation and Institute of Nuclear New Energy Technology that is designed to generate 210 megawatts of energy.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), SMR and FNPP technologies are unlikely to contribute significantly to the expansion of nuclear power in the next decade. If adoption of such technologies matches the current level of interest, reactor development and deployment will take time to materialize.

  1. There is a pathway to the successful utilization of SMRs/FNPPs

There are several factors associated with the successful utilization of SMRs and FNPPs. Advancing them as early as possible in the industrial supply chain is important for proper integration into energy production. Developing industry standards, to ensure compatibility and interoperability with other systems, and adopting and scaling up SMR/FNPP technologies adequately to enjoy the economies of the multiples are also essential. Finally, ensuring “green passage” for transportable SMRs/FNPPs is a key factor in facilitating safe and efficient mobilization of these technologies for nearshore, offshore, and maritime applications.

  1. Safety, security, and safeguards considerations are a challenge for SMRs/FNPPs

One problem with SMR/FNPP technologies is that they are not devoid of safety, security, and safeguards challenges. SMRs and FNPPs, notably “first-of-a-kind” reactors, have unique features, specific systems, and novel operating conditions, introducing challenges to the established regulatory bodies, potentially leading to safety concerns. The special features of SMRs and FNPPs, notably their transportability, more flexible siting options to include remote or urban locations, and new fuel designs also present new nuclear security challenges, some possibly more serious than those of large reactors. Moreover, because they use different types of fuel that require new technologies in manufacturing and handling of nuclear materials, some SMRs and FNPPs present unique challenges to IAEA safeguards.

The best way to address these safety, security, and safeguards challenges is to adopt a holistic approach. Such a “3S” approach helps better understand the challenges (and opportunities) associated with SMR and FNPP deployments.

  1. SMR/FNPP deployment will happen in a competitive security environment

Nuclear power development has always been intimately linked to geopolitics. There is no reason to think that it will be different this time around, especially given that the security environment is becoming increasingly competitive.

Because Russia has been relentless in its intended nuclear energy (traditional and SMR/FNPP) exports, notably in the Indo-Pacific, and because China looms large over the horizon as a major nuclear exporter in the context of its Belt-and-Road Initiative, there are fears in Washington that the United States might lag behind (because it has a limited nuclear export industry) and lose potential markets or surrender influence in the region to either Moscow or Beijing, or both. Significantly, a few other regional countries are entering the nuclear export business as well.

  1. It isn’t clear (yet) if SMRs/FNPPs will have far-reaching geopolitical implications

Caution is in order, however. The current renewed interest in nuclear power may, as its predecessors, dissipate. Even if it materializes, it will be a very slow process. The United States, then, should keep an eye on key developments and dynamics but not rush into anything.

If Washington wants to help US manufacturers of SMRs and FNPPs gain new markets in the Indo-Pacific, the priority should be Indonesia given Jakarta’s urgent (and massive) need for new power sources. Doing so in the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam would only be judicious if these three countries confirm their intentions to pursue nuclear power. Either way, selling (or failing to sell) US manufactured of SMR and FNPP technologies is unlikely to change radically the recipients’ approach to Washington as a trade or security partner.

  1. The United States should ask itself if it benefits from expanding or limiting the nuclear export market

It is an open question whether the United States should focus on competing aggressively to expand the traditional and emerging SMR and FNPP export market (and shape it to its advantage) or if, instead, it should focus on limiting such expansion. Conducting a thorough study on the benefits, costs, and risks of each option would be useful and timely.

This list of key insights is not comprehensive. There is much left to unpack to understand fully the renewed interest in nuclear power and the seemingly high enthusiasm for SMRs and FNPPs, plus the implications for the Indo-Pacific specifically. Our volume’s papers provide preliminary analyses to help jumpstart this research.

David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) and Carl Baker (carl@pacforum.org) are respectively President/CEO and Senior Advisor at the Pacific Forum. Follow David Santoro on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR 3 – South Korea’s Place in the Indo-Pacific: A Research Showcase for Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellows

About this Volume

Papers by the Pacific Forum’s current and previous Korea Foundation Fellows examine pressing issues facing the Korean Peninsula in the 21st century. These include the Great Power Competition between the US and China, North Korea and nuclear security, critical new technologies, and energy security. These papers by emerging leaders in the Korean Studies field offer fresh perspectives on Korean security issues – both well-known and emerging – useful for watchers of the peninsula both inside and out of Northeast Asia.

Authors of this volume participated in the Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellowship program between 2019-2022, with the generous support of the Korea Foundation 

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its staff, donors and sponsors.

Click here to download the full volume.


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Fostering Conversations on Emerging and Enduring Security Challenges | Rob York
  2. Choose to Win: Two Scenarios on Future Weapons and their Implications for Korea, the US, and Asian Security | Seongwon Lee
  3. South Korea’s Role Amid US-China Strategic Competition | Su Hyun Lee
  4. Between Rhetoric and Practice: Yoon Suk Yeol’s Choice for South Korea and the Indo-Pacific | Eun A Jo and Jae Chang
  5. South Korean Semiconductors: The Crux of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Long-Term Strategy toward Technological Leadership | Kangkyu Lee
  6. Exploring the Opportunities for Comprehensive Response to Disinformation in the Indo-Pacific: Cases of the Republic of Korea and the United States | Jong-Hwa Ahn
  7. The Politics of Multilateral Energy Cooperation in Northeast Asia: The Implications for South Korea, Japan, and China | Juyoung Kim

About the Authors

Rob York is Program Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. He is responsible for editing Pacific Forum publications, including the weekly PacNet series, the triannual Comparative Connections journal, and the in-depth Issue & Insights series. Prior to joining Pacific Forum, Rob worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. A PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Rob has established himself as a commentator on inter-Korean and Hong Kong affairs, as a regular contributor to NK News and The Daily NK and having been published at The South China Morning PostWar on the Rocks, the Foundation for Economic Education, Korean Studies, and The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, as well as conducting numerous interviews in various media outlets. His research agenda at Pacific Forum includes trade and its relationship with security, media analysis, countering disinformation, and human rights.

Seongwon Lee is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. Previously, he was a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum (2020), deputy director for international cooperation at the Ministry of Unification, and interpretation officer at the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. He earned his BA at Stanford University, MA at University of North Korean Studies, and is currently finalizing his PhD dissertation titled “Future Weapons: An Evolutionary History” at the Graduate School of Future Strategy, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Su Hyun Lee is the 2021-22 resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum. She holds a BA in East Asian International Studies and MA in International Cooperation both from Yonsei University. 

Eun A Jo is a PhD candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University and an incoming 2022-2023 predoctoral fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. She is interested in political narratives, memory, and the domestic politics of international relations, with a focus on East Asia. Her dissertation, “Narrating Enemies in World Politics,” explores how post-conflict states narrate their former enemies and what implications these narratives hold for policies of peace and reconciliation. To this end, she compares the narrative trajectories of postcolonial, postwar, and post-authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea, using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework and a mixed-method research design. A paper from this research, titled “Pasts that Bind,” is forthcoming in International Organization.

Jae Chang is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Government and China & Asia-Pacific Studies. His primary research interests are Northeast Asian multilateralism and the role of identity politics in international relations. Additionally, he is interested in the impact of South Korean pop culture, especially in Korea’s partnership with Netflix.

Kangkyu Lee is a research fellow with the Humane AI Initiative at the East-West Center. He is also a consultant in Korean and Japanese affairs for Blackpeak. He is an incoming PhD student in International Affairs, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and was formerly (2020-21) a resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum where he researched the implications of AI and other frontier technologies on international relations and global security.

Jong-Hwa Ahn is an expert in international security and strategic planning. Recently, he worked for the United Nations on policy planning and is currently a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow for media and journalism. At Pacific Forum, he was a Korea Foundation Fellow for foreign policy and regional strategy and, as an army officer in the Republic of Korea, he served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. He also worked on public diplomacy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Korea Institute of Sport Science and received his Master’s in International Peace and Security from Korea University.

Juyoung Kim is a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum, where her research focused on the politics of multilateral energy cooperation in Northeast Asia. She has nearly five years of policy research experience in several think tanks in South Korea including the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Future Resources Institute and East Asia Institute and her research interest in natural resource governance, the geopolitics of energy and multilateral energy cooperation has evolved gradually from her work experiences. Juyoung recently defended her PhD thesis on the politics of governing Mozambique’s LNG industry at King’s College London, and she received her MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

PacNet #24 – Why it’s so hard to quit Chinese steel

Steel is all around us, from sophisticated defense weapons to railways and buildings, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored its critical use in medical equipment. It is the commodity great powers, notably China, may attempt to control and use to coerce other states on international platforms. China’s excessive production of steel is the prime factor in global overcapacity, hurting domestic steel producers in other countries. It also creates unwanted dependencies on Chinese steel, not to mention national security concerns.

Many countries realize this, but fixing the problem is harder than noting it.

China’s hold over steel, particularly stainless steel, has increased radically in recent decades. In 2020, steel production in China exceeded 1 billion tons, at a time when global steel output was 1.864 billion tons (fig 1) total.

But that is not the complete picture. Chinese companies also produce steel in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia. Production has shifted to ASEAN countries with the onset of the US-China trade war to reduce dependency on China, but if Southeast Asia’s production of steel, an essential component in manufacturing, were controlled by Beijing, then regional value chains remain vulnerable.

Tariff rows over steel

As succinctly analyzed by Elisabeth Braw for Foreign Policy, China has manipulated the global steel market for years. The Chinese government had long subsidized its steel producers, leading to overproduction. China has likely kept prices of exported steel artificially low, a violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules known as “dumping.” The European Union in 2015 imposed anti-dumping duties on China, only to later realize that exports of steel from Chinese companies, produced in Indonesia, were still flooding the market. Once the EU anti-dumping duties were imposed on both China and Indonesia in 2019, Beijing retaliated by increasing tariffs on EU steel imports from 18.1% to over 103%.

Indonesia has the world’s largest nickel reserves but has banned nickel exports as a  strategy to boost domestic manufacturing. However, the ban seems to have come (conveniently) after the Chinese company Tsingshan began producing stainless steel in Indonesia. Given Indonesia’s ban on nickel exports, EU steel producers were left in the lurch, whereas the Tsingshan plant in Indonesia continued to produce stainless steel. Tsingshan’s cheap stainless steel exports have rattled markets everywhere. Indonesia was the source of 60% of China’s stainless steel imports in 2018—it had been zero as recently as 2015. The massive export increase is also reflected in a year-on-year difference of 420,000 tons in 2017 to 1.1 million tons in 2018, after which China decided to impose 20% anti-dumping duties on Indonesia.

What are the implications for steel producers like India, Japan, and the United States?

The Trump administration imposed tariffs on all steel imports in 2018, citing a threat to US national security. A 2018 US Department of Commerce report classifies steel as a vital element of national security given its use in “critical infrastructure and national defense,” recommending “immediate action by adjusting the level of imports.” The Biden administration has taken a similar stance, even as Washington and Brussels work toward a settlement.

It became clear, however, that global overcapacity in steel threatens both the American and European steel industries. Japan has also been in talks with the US government since November 2021 to lift curbs on its steel exports under the Japan-US Commercial and Industrial Partnership, and under a newly concluded deal the United States agreed to remove a 25% levy on 1.25 million tons of Japanese steel imports, effective April 1. In its budget for 2022, India removed the countervailing duty, imposed in 2017 on imports of steel from abroad, to bring down steel prices. Given the emphasis on infrastructure in its 2022 budget, and New Delhi’s plans to boost domestic manufacturing under its Make-in-India initiative, steel may be required in abundance.

Modeled on the 2009 Mineral and Coal Mining Law, Indonesia’s ban on mineral exports seeks to channel investment into smelters and processing plants. China has been at the forefront with approximately $30 billion of investment in Indonesia’s nickel value chains. According to the Southeast Asian Iron and Steel Institute, about 59.4 million tons, or 74% of the steel output of ASEAN countries in the next 10 years will come from Chinese projects in these countries. Indonesia will be a leader among them, with an output of 19.5 million tons.

China has several Belt-and-Road-Initiative (BRI) projects in the region, and it is easier to source the essential components of steel for these mega-infrastructure projects from Chinese companies producing locally. However, skepticism over Chinese debt may stall BRI projects in the region. As local consumption slows, ASEAN steel exports will predictably flood international markets even more. For instance, post-China’s anti-dumping duties, Indonesian stainless steel exports to the rest of the world accelerated anxiety among major producers, like POSCO in South Korea, Jindal in India, and local mills in the European Union. In absence of regulatory frameworks, global overcapacity may force steel producers to shut down in many countries and regions like the United States, Japan, and the European Union, in addition to creating dependencies on Beijing.

Possible measures

Despite international pressure, China has had limited success in curbing steel production even after curtailing subsidies. If China, or Chinese companies producing steel in Southeast Asia, continue to dump steel into the international market in this manner, domestic steel industries in many countries will be gravely affected. Given the importance of steel for national security, several countries that view themselves as regional powers in the Indo-Pacific—like India or Japan—and ASEAN nations, which see Chinese maritime expansionism as a threat, may find their autonomy compromised. Even if national security is invoked in such cases to curb imports (like the United States did in 2018), local steel producers will have already suffered substantial damage.

Major steel producing countries may instead coalesce to push the WTO to implement reforms that sufficiently cover the gaps and address ambiguity in dumping regulations, without excluding China from the dialogue in reaching inclusive terms. Large economies like the “Quad” countries (United States, Japan, Australia, and India) might also want to invest in Southeast Asia’s steel sector to ensure diversification and prevent China’s domination of this essential commodity. Since the region is critical for global value chains, preserving its autonomy by diversifying is necessary.

Akash Sahu (akash00015@gmail.com) is a researcher in Indo-Pacific geopolitics and Southeast Asian studies. He works as Research Analyst at New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). He looks at traditional and non-traditional security in the Indo-Pacific, balance of power, and inter-state defence relationships in the region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. 

PacNet #24 – The destruction of North Korean agriculture: We need to rethink UN sanctions

In 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korea’s continued nuclear testing, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expanded sanctions that had previously been targeted at commodities, individuals, and institutions linked to the nuclear and missile sector to sanctions measures that no longer differentiated between the civilian and the military sectors. The 2017 UNSC sanctions included a ban on the import of natural gas and condensates; a cap on crude oil imports to 4 million barrels a year and refined oil product imports, which includes diesel and kerosene, to half a million barrels a year. Military sector oil imports, including rocket fuel, were already prohibited by the Wassenaar Arrangement, prior UN sanctions and bilateral Chinese export controls, so the impact of the UN oil sanctions fell disproportionately on the civilian economy.

North Korea has no indigenous sources of oil and natural gas and therefore depends on imported energy inputs to produce fertilizer and pesticides, to fuel irrigation equipment and agricultural machinery and to transport agricultural inputs including seeds, crops, equipment, spare parts, and labor. Given the UN prohibitions on essential energy imports, it should be no surprise that in 2018 North Korea’s agricultural production collapsed to levels similar to those of the famine years of the 1990s.

Under international law, the North Korean government has primary responsibility for the welfare of its population but that does not mean that outside actors like the UN do not also hold responsibilities. No government or international organization may use the excuse of the wrongdoing of governments to inflict further harm on innocents living in that government’s territory. In war time, the destruction of agriculture in an enemy territory is a war crime.

The Geneva Conventions state that it “is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works… whatever the motive.”

North Korea needs around 5 and a half million tons of cereal a year to feed its people, at subsistence levels. In the 1990s, between a third and two-thirds of a million people lost their lives in the midst of economic collapse and the devastation of North Korea’s agricultural sector. Crop production recovered to the extent that between 2012 and 2016, domestic food production, averaged around 5 million tons a year. The food gap was filled from a more or less even split between commercial imports and food aid. In total, recorded imports hovered at around half a million tonnes a year, increasing, after a reduced harvest in 2017, to an import requirement of just over three-quarters of a million tons for 2018, as sanctions tightened.

Improved agricultural production combined with a manageable food import requirement had been accompanied by significant improvements in child nutrition. By 2017, according to UNICEF, North Korean children, whether in terms of stunting (a sign of long term poor nutrition) or wasting (a sign of starvation conditions) on average were significantly and measurably better off than if they had lived in other poor Asian counties like Nepal or even some wealthier countries in Asia, like Pakistan, India, and the Philippines.

In 2018, after the implementation of energy sanctions, agricultural production fell to just over 4 million tonnes, leaving an enormous food deficit of 1 and a half million tonnes in 2019. Put another way, if the only food available in 2019 had been from domestic food production, only about two-thirds of the 25 million population could have received even a basic subsistence level ration. There was no humanitarian crisis in 2019 because China and Russia stepped up with massive food aid as well as fertilizer and pesticide support and, very likely, ignored sanctions limits on oil exports to the DPRK.

Even prior to UN energy sanctions, the North Korean economy was getting by with globally low levels of oil inputs; the 25 million population was second only to the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo as the lowest per capita consumers of oil in the world. The UNSC December 2017 limit on refined oil imports to 500,000 barrels a year is less than Australia, an oil producer itself and with a similar size population to the DPRK, imports in one day. Agriculture in North Korea is founded on hard physical labour, mainly by women, because of the nationwide lack of technology and farm equipment. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how much human labour can substitute for the diesel that is necessary to transport crops and labour from one place to another or the natural gas and oil products necessary to produce the fertilizer and pesticides to ensure adequate yields from insufficient land and inhospitable terrain.

Neither the United Nations nor the member states have a road map that sets out how the goal of DPRK denuclearization will be achieved by sanctions that target the civilian economy. Perhaps the UNSC assumption is that the people will rise up and overturn the government if conditions get tougher. Yet North Korea is, by almost any criteria, including GNI in total or per capita, one of the poorest countries in the world. In destroying agricultural production, the 2017 sanctions have made day-to-day life a literal struggle for the physical survival of families and communities, which does not leave time, opportunity, capacity, or motivation for individuals to also risk their lives by expressing political criticism of a security-focused authoritarian government.

In 2003 the UN had abandoned non-targeted sanctions because of the many well-attested reports from internationally respected health professionals that showed how non-targeted sanctions did not discriminate between innocents and wrong-doers and had caused the deaths of millions of children in Iraq and Haiti. The United Nations Security Council cannot excuse itself through a bureaucratic insertion of “humanitarian exemptions” in its resolutions. The loss of agricultural production destroys farmers’ capacity to grow food in future years. The scope and scale of North Korea’s food production losses could only be compensated by what would have to be the largest and most expensive food aid operation in the world. No member state is seriously proposing this as an option. Ethically, it is also a rather grotesque idea that the same organization that destroyed the population’s ability to feed itself should offer “humanitarian” aid as recompense.

In 2020 China and Russia face coronavirus. If the disease damages their own agricultural production cycle or if they decide they need to keep their oil and cereal stocks at home to protect against the economic uncertainties brought by the global pandemic then, while energy sanctions continue, the North Korean population will again face the threat of starvation. The UN’s own agencies that have been resident and working in North Korea for 25 years and more, especially the FAO and the WFP, have already documented how these new sanctions have brought back a level of food insecurity unknown since the famine years.

This is the start of the agricultural season in North Korea. At least until the UNSC has brought forward a detailed impact study of sanctions on food security, oil, and energy sanctions should be suspended.

Hazel Smith (hs50@soas.ac.uk) PhD FRSA is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; Member Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum and Fellow, Wilson Center, Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.