[Viewpoint] Nuclear standards on the line

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[Viewpoint] Nuclear standards on the line

The evolution of human civilization is closely related to the development of science and technology. And the history of science and technology is also the history of competition over standards. The rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over the method of electric power distribution is a good example. Thomas Edison promoted direct current (DC) while Tesla, an ethnic Serb who had worked as Edison’s assistant, advocated alternating current (AC).

Edison might have been a great inventor but he used all kinds of dirty tricks to discourage the use of the alternating current. However, Tesla won the “war of the currents,” and the world adopted - and is still using - the overwhelmingly predominant AC power as its standard.

In rare occasions, the standard is not necessarily the superior technology. In the video cassette market, Sony’s proprietary technology Betamax was defeated by VHS, a relatively inferior technology promoted by a group of competitors. The videotape format war illustrates the importance of marketing and is a classic case of a failed attempt to excessively monopolize the market. However, the gap between the two technologies was not huge.

Forty-one years ago, Korea wisely chose an ideal standard for nuclear power plant construction, and the selection led to today’s nuclear power renaissance here. Saul Eisenberg, a businessman and lobbyist who had great influence in the political and business fields in Korea at the time, worked as a lobbyist for a U.K. company and promoted an advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR), which was the dominant technology then. Many politicians and scientists also backed the AGR method.

But after thorough research and study, the Park Chung Hee administration and science and industry leaders selected the pressurized water reactor (PWR) instead, believing it to be the standard of the future. But Eisenberg was told that Korea could still select AGR in the future.

But a serious safety issue eventually became a problem for AGR, and the technology is no longer used. The U.K., which stuck with AGR, fell behind in the nuclear power race forever. If Korea had chosen AGR, it would have met a similar fate.

A few days ago, Washington announced that it would discuss with Seoul the issue of pyro-processing, which has become a hot-button topic, in negotiations this fall to revise the Korea-U.S. Nuclear Power Agreement. Pyro-processing is a high-temperature method of separating high level waste (HLW) from spent nuclear fuel. Burning HLW on a generation IV fast reactor releases enormous amounts of energy, and waste is turned into mid-or-low level waste with radically lower toxicity levels. The volume of the waste is also reduced to one-hundredth the original level.

While pyro-processing is a technology developed mainly by Korea, the U.S. has been reluctant to discuss the issue because of its potential for use in weapons development. Washington’s formal announcement of the discussion is basically an acknowledgement of Korea’s commitment to the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

There are two standards for generation IV fast reactors: sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFR) and lead/bismuth-cooled fast reactors (LFR). Until recently, Korea and other developed countries have been concentrating on SFRs. However, the advantages of LFRs have been acknowledged, and the global trend these days is to pursue parallel development of both technologies to reduce risks. SFR is resistant to earthquakes but vulnerable to fire, and its commercialization is likely to take three or four more decades.

Russia, which has selected SFRs for its new developments, has had fires once every two years. Japan’s Monju reactor was closed because of a similar problem in 1995, and problems continue to be reported after it resumed operation in May 2010 after 14 years of suspension.

Meanwhile, LFRs, which do not have fire risks, were chosen this year as the standard for the Belgium-led MYRRHA, the EU’s next generation nuclear reactor project. Since LFRs can be built in a short time frame and smaller models are possible, a reactor can be completed by 2020 to immediately burn reusable HLW extracted from pyro-processing.

Because the technology can clear suspicions for plutonium extraction and nuclear weapons development, Seoul can take an advantageous position in the negotiation with Washington. However, LFRs are vulnerable to corrosion and earthquakes, and scientists and researchers are working on both crafting new materials to prevent corrosion and new designs resistant to earthquakes.

The international standard will be finally chosen based on which model has more strong points and minimized weaknesses. Selecting a standard is an extremely sensitive and important issue. One choice can determine a country’s future, not just in one lifetime but over the course of several centuries. If a mistake is made, we will suffer for a long time.

The time is approaching to select a standard for peaceful and environmentally friendly nuclear technology, led by Korea. Once again, we need to display the wisdom of the nuclear pioneers who made an insightful choice of light water reactors four decades ago.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor at Myongji University and the director of international cooperation for the Forum on Climate Change and Energy Policy.

By Kang Gyu-hyeong
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