South Korea's KEPCO picked as preferred bidder for UK nuclear project

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s state utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) said on Wednesday that it had been picked as a preferred bidder for Toshiba’s NuGen nuclear project in Britain, throwing the troubled project a lifeline.

Power transmission towers are seen near the plant of new Shin Kori No. 3 reactor and No. 4 reactor of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) in Ulsan, about 410 km (255 miles) southeast of Seoul, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

KEPCO said in a statement the company planned to negotiate with Toshiba over the next few months to buy a stake in the nuclear project and sign a deal in the first half of next year if the negotiation progresses smoothly.

KEPCO’s win occurs as South Korea, the world’s fifth-biggest nuclear power user, plans to lower its dependence on nuclear power at home mainly due to safety concerns, while continuing its nuclear export drive abroad.

KEPCO had been negotiating with Toshiba to buy a stake in Britain’s NuGen nuclear project in Moorside, northwest England, for months.

A KEPCO spokesman said the company had yet to get a nuclear design approval from the British government, known as a generic design assessment (GDA), to use its own nuclear reactor design.

The GDA approval process typically takes about four years.

Toshiba’s Westinghouse was initially expected to provide the reactor technology which already has GDA approval.

“Toshiba has been engaged with multiple credible and capable parties who have expressed an interest in acquiring NuGen, further testimony of the attractiveness of the nuclear industry in the UK and an indication of the degree of foreign investment that is ready and willing to enter this market,” a NuGen spokesman said.

“NuGen and its shareholder Toshiba are exploring a range of options for funding the Moorside project, which includes Toshiba selling some or all its shareholding in NuGen,” he added.

The NuGen project is expected to provide about 7 percent of Britain’s electricity but was thrown into doubt after U.S. company Westinghouse declared bankruptcy and its partner in the project, France’s Engie, pulled out.

It was initially hoped electricity generation would begin by 2025. Nugen’s chief executive told Reuters in October that a new delivery plan would be set up by the new owners but the plant should still be up and running before 2030.

Britain needs to invest in new capacity to replace ageing coal and nuclear plants that are due to close in the 2020s, but large new plants have struggled to get off the ground due to high costs and weak electricity prices.

Reporting by Jane Chung; Additional reporting by Nina Chestney in London; Editing by Tom Hogue and Edmund Blair