The government yesterday approved a US$7 billion project to build two nuclear plants, a boost for an industry struggling to emerge from the shadow of Japan's Fukushima disaster and the first approval since a policy review sparked by a safety scandal at Korean reactors.
Approval comes only two weeks after South Korea announced a policy shift to cut its reliance on nuclear generation to 29 per cent of total power supply by 2035, down from a planned 41 per cent by 2030.
A series of nuclear reactor shutdowns since last year due to safety issues have raised the risk of blackouts, putting pressure on policymakers to maintain power supplies in an economy relying on energy-intensive industries such as car-making, steel and electronics.
The approvals will also encourage South Korea's nuclear power industry, which still aims to export its expertise into a global market dominated by France, the United States and Russia.
South Korea, which ranks fifth globally in nuclear power generation, has largely developed its own nuclear industry, building and operating its reactors through state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco).
Kepco won a contract in 2009 to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates and started construction in mid-2012.
But Seoul has faced public pressure to curb its use of nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster and to rebuild confidence in the industry after a scandal over parts supplied using fake certificates.
It adopted the lower target for nuclear power earlier this month, but still plans to double its nuclear capacity over the next two decades as its state-run industry builds at least 16 further domestic reactors and pushes for overseas sales.
South Korea has 23 nuclear reactors, generating about a third of its electricity. Yesterday, it shut down one plant due to a technical problem, taking the number of reactors closed to four and increasing the risk of power shortages over winter.
The plants approved yesterday add to five already under construction, including one that will be completed in July this year. Each plant has 1,400-megawatt capacity. They are due for completion by 2020 and cost 7.6 trillion won (HK$54.5 billion).