Nuclear-fired power no panacea

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Nuclear-fired power no panacea

President Lee Myung-bak reiterated the country’s commitment to the safe use of atomic energy and discussed plans to expand nuclear generating facilities as a source of power in a United Nations-sponsored high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security. A similar message was delivered at a recent gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency by Kim Chang-kyung, the vice minister of education, science and technology.

South Korea currently produces about 40 percent of its electricity at 21 nuclear reactors and plans to build more generators and boost the share of atomic energy to 59 percent by 2030. Environmentalists criticize the government plans as going in the wrong direction. Other countries are shying away from nuclear power development after Japan’s accident at the Fukushima reactor complex raised concerns about nuclear safety.

Last week’s mass power outage underscored our dilemma. Electricity has become indispensable to power today’s society. A five-hour power cut in the capital and other cities caused major confusion and inconvenience. Casualties and economic losses would be inevitable if a total blackout took place. We cannot take lightly our undercapacity reality. The fundamental problem lies with an imbalance in supply and demand.

There are two ways to avoid a blackout. One would be building more power plants to boost supply; the other is reducing consumption by raising utility rates. Both are necessary steps, but hiking electricity rates is not easy because of public resistance. The government sees an easier path in the alternative of increasing supply. Atomic energy can produce electricity at a cost one-third that of using liquefied natural gas, one-fifth that of petroleum and one-sixth that of renewable energy. Moreover, unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy emits no carbon dioxide.

Of course, more reactors do not suddenly boost output. We need to conserve energy until the new generators under construction are fully ready to operate, by 2015.

Backup capacity should reach 15 percent, but it is now at 4 to 5 percent. If demand increases or supply falls quickly, power would have to be cut off.

To prevent an imminent energy crisis, we may have to first increase power generation from fossil-fuel plants or rely on efforts to reduce consumption through conservation and rate hikes.

Moves to build more reactors must also be accompanied by toughened safety measures and standards.

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