UAE to sign nuclear pact with S Korea

South Korean companies could build the UAE's proposed nuclear reactors more quickly and efficiently.

The Shin-Kori Reactors No. 3 and 4 under construction in South Korea. Courtesy Embassy of the Republic of Korea to U.A.E.
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South Korean companies could build the UAE's proposed nuclear reactors more quickly and efficiently than anyone else, the Han Seung-soo, the prime minister said Sunday in Abu Dhabi, on the eve of a nuclear co-operation agreement between the two countries. Mr Han said South Korea was "ready to transfer" its nuclear power technology and the skills to run it to the Emirates. A bid by South Korean firms to design, build and operate a fleet of nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi should be the start of a new economic relationship with the UAE that expands beyond energy and construction, he said.

Mr Han will meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, to sign the nuclear co-operation agreement, which will allow South Korean firms to transfer nuclear technology under a commitment from the UAE that it will not seek to develop nuclear weapons. "The agreement we are going to sign tomorrow in Dubai in the presence of myself and Prime Minister Mohammed will pave the way for closer co-operation in nuclear energy," Mr Han said. "We hope we will be able to play some part in advancing the ambition of the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi's ambition, to become one of the leading countries that make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Mr Han's state visit to the UAE comes as consortiums of firms from South Korea, France, the US and Japan compete for a contract reportedly worth US$40 billion (Dh146.82bn) to build and operate a fleet of reactors due to be commissioned from 2017. The contract is due to be awarded on Sept 16, after the field of three consortiums is narrowed to two this summer. South Korea has never exported its nuclear technology, a fact experts say will hurt its bid in Abu Dhabi. But Mr Han said South Korean firms had built the country's 20 reactors with an unmatched efficiency.

"Korea's skill in construction is well known in the Middle East," he said. "We are able to build and complete the construction in 58 months and we are going to reduce this even further. "For a country like Abu Dhabi, the deliverability time is very important, so in that respect we have a competitive advantage over other countries." The South Korean firms, understood to be led by Korea Electric Power Company, will face tough competition from a French consortium headed by Areva, Total and GDF Suez, and an alliance of companies from the US and Japan.

Experts say the French will have experience on their side but could be hurt by the poor execution of a project in Finland, which has been beset by cost overruns, delays and disputes. The US-Japan group may offer a reactor design that is already operating at several sites in Japan, but it will be nearly 30 years old by the time the UAE's nuclear programme is under way. The reactor design offered by the South Korean consortium, known as the Advanced Pressurised Reactor 1400, is under construction at two sites in South Korea but not operating yet. It is a refinement of an existing design based on US technology. South Korea's reactors have the lowest down time of any country in the world.

Government officials in Abu Dhabi have said they will evaluate the bid on a strictly commercial basis, weighing factors such as cost and construction time, while seeking the newest technology. The Government has vowed to forgo the enrichment of uranium to allay fears that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. South Korea's nuclear co-operation agreement with the UAE will be similar to the text of the 123 Agreement signed by the US this year, which allows the use of US technology and personnel in the UAE's nuclear programme, according to South Korean diplomats.

Abu Dhabi's interest in nuclear power also demonstrated its commitment to developing carbon-free sources of energy, said Mr Han, formerly the special envoy on climate change for the UN secretary general. "In an age of climate change, more and more I think the demand for nuclear will increase," he said. Mr Han also said he would like to see business ties between the two countries expand beyond energy and construction to include investments from Abu Dhabi into South Korean industry.

He said South Korean industry had managed to bring a greater level of information technology into its manufacturing industry, creating cutting-edge process technology. Mr Han said he hoped investors in the UAE might join the country in exploring further innovations. "Frankly, we would like to see more of the funds from Abu Dhabi come to Korea to invest," he said. "If we find really good partners in the private sector, even in the government sector, then we can make a much greater improvement in our relationship."

Abu Dhabi is South Korea's second-largest supplier of both oil and natural gas, while South Korean engineering and contracting firms have played an important role in building much of the emirate's industrial infrastructure.