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US, Korea to collaborate on small nuclear power plants and other defence-relevant technologies

The RAN is still trying to work out which of two possible designs of nuclear-powered submarine – a UK or US design – it should adopt. Photo: Defence

Ignored in the coverage of the Quad Leaders’ Summit just after Australia’s Federal election was a Joint Statement by US President Biden and the Republic of Korea’s head of Government, President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Against the background of an activist and unpredictable North Korea and the strategic threats it poses, the two Presidents met before the Quad Leaders’ Summit and pledged to deepen and broaden cooperation on critical and emerging technologies and cyber security. But a carefully worded announcement on nuclear cooperation could open the door to a Korean submarine powered by a new, Small Modular Reactor (SMR).

French magazine Naval News ran a story after the meeting speculating about the likelihood of Korea acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine in the future.

The joint statement by President’s Bien and Yoon states:

“The two leaders commit to greater nuclear energy collaboration and accelerating the development and global deployment of advanced reactors and small modular reactors by jointly using export promotion and capacity building tools, and building a more resilient nuclear supply chain. The two Presidents reaffirm that both countries will engage in global civil-nuclear cooperation in accordance with the highest standards of nuclear non-proliferation, including the IAEA Additional Protocol as the standard for both international safeguards and for nuclear supply arrangements.

“Acknowledging the shared goals of deepening strategic ties, while respecting each country’s intellectual investments, both leaders commit to using tools such as the ROK-U.S. Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Technology Transfer and Export Cooperation to provide a solid foundation for strengthened cooperation in the U.S., ROK and overseas nuclear markets and the High-Level Bilateral Commission, to further cooperation for spent fuel management, nuclear export promotion, assured fuel supply and nuclear security. The U.S. welcomes the ROK’s decision to join the U.S.-led Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) program.”

This announcement came shortly before the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Japan attended by President Biden, newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Indian Prime Minister Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida.

The Joint Statement adds, “Fully recognizing that scientists, researchers, and engineers of the ROK and the U.S. are among the most innovative in the world, the two Presidents agree to leverage this comparative advantage to enhance public and private cooperation to protect and promote critical and emerging technologies, including leading-edge semiconductors, eco-friendly EV batteries, Artificial Intelligence, quantum technology, biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and autonomous robotics.

“The two Presidents also agree to establish a regular ministerial-level Supply Chain and Commercial Dialogue to discuss promotion of resilient supply chains of key products, including semiconductors, batteries, and critical minerals.”

So Australia’s commercial relationship with the UA could evolve to include similar commodities, especially critical minerals in which, in some cases, Australia is a key global supplier and one of the few significant non-Chinese suppliers.

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