Demand necessitates new plants
The government recently revealed a plan to build two more nuclear reactors and increase the total number to 36 by 2029. The plan raised debate about whether we need more nuclear power facilities. Advocates claim they are necessary sources of sustainable power and critical to reducing carbon emissions. Opponents say the environmental costs of the facilities are too great, and claim that the present power supply will be sufficient if consumption is more efficient.
The recent plan to cancel the construction of four coal-fueled power plants and replace them with two additional nuclear reactors has reignited debate about the country’s energy policy. Some are adamantly against any additional grids whether they are powered by fossil or nuclear fuels. Some are solely opposed to nuclear facilities.
Because electricity cannot be stored in huge quantities, it must be produced on demand. Supply infrastructure must therefore be planned well ahead. It is why the government draws up a long-term outline based on future demand estimates.
The size of the pipeline is calculated based on peak demand during the summer season, which lasts just one or two weeks. If there is enough to meet peak demand at that time, there shouldn’t be problems with the power supply the rest of the year. Overall overcapacity is normal. But if power supply is calculated solely to meet demand during normal times, we would have blackouts during peak and extraordinary high demand circumstances.
Nuclear power plant construction has been constrained and delayed amid repeated arguments about overcapacity and inefficient management because policy has been too supply-oriented. Some have said the country would do well with existing facilities if electricity fees were rationalized.
As a result, most had to be warned about shutdowns and shortages during the winter and summer peak seasons for the last three years. Demand has been conservatively estimated and the reserve ratio has come down over the last decade, which led to periodic greyouts and blackouts. In the latest outlines, demand growth was also conservatively estimated at 0.1 percent below previous plans and reserve ratio targeted at 22 percent - levels experts deem too risky and dangerous.
Moreover, today’s society has become too digitalized and dependent on electricity to risk any interruption and disruption in the power supply. A blackout could cause havoc on society more than in the past because it could disrupt communications and Internet-based activities. Japan keeps the reserve ratio at 70 percent.
So why the nuclear reactor? First, it is necessary for supply security. If demand is overly underestimated, supply could fall behind after a few years. Then we’d have to hastily construct new power plants. The state would build LNG-fired plants instead of nuclear grids because they are faster to construct. Due to underestimation over the last decade or so, nuclear to overall power facilities fell below the desirable ratio. Electricity bills will have to go up and supply will be less secure.
Second, due to the rise in petroleum prices, coal prices have gone up. It now costs half as much to build a nuclear reactor as a coal-fired plant. Cheap electricity is one of Korean industry’s biggest competitive advantages when it comes to lowering costs. Third, all nations are obliged to reduce carbon emissions. Since it is more difficult to cut emissions from the transportation and industrial fields, we must try to save in energy, and nuclear power is the best solution. The country can face huge fines from carbon trade regulations in 2020.
Fourth, we need nuclear power for energy security. Nuclear fuel can be stocked for a year and help sustain energy stability for the nation. We cannot outright oppose nuclear power because of a dogmatic belief that it can be dangerous. Nuclear power should not be feared. We have not had any deaths from nuclear reactors.
The nuclear reactor catastrophes at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011 caused a great scare, but not a single person died as a result. The Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 caused 30 deaths, and there were warnings of greater consequences to come. But no additional problems have been reported over the last three decades.
The concerns about nuclear power have largely been misleading and overblown. Germany and Italy had put off reactor plans after the Fukushima crisis in 2011, but Britain in 2013 announced a plan to build eight nuclear reactors. Japan is also eagerly exporting nuclear reactors. Power policy must be addressed scientifically, not politically.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor at the department of nuclear engineering of Kyung Hee University.
by Chung Bum-jin