Four myths about nuclear powerAn antonym for favoritism might be benevolence or “biased hatred.” Korea is a world-class nuclear energy producer while also a model for nuclear disarmament. Because nuclear energy has contributed to Korea’s economic development, it is one of the world’s major nuclear power plant exporters. Even though it is better to make prudent decisions on energy policy after researching all alternatives and options, the government’s approach to it has been more like an antismoking campaign.
Favoritism and biased hatred both come from prejudice and excessive self-conviction. When the future is not considered and the present is emphasized, radical policies might sound reasonable. There have been misleading views about nuclear energy.
The first is on safety. The government has acknowledged nuclear power as an affordable energy source but argues that we should choose safety over cost due to the possibility of disastrous fallout.
That is not true. Barring radioactive leaks, nuclear power plant accidents are no different from the mechanical malfunctions we have become accustomed to. Hundreds of nuclear reactors are in operation, and there have only been two major radiation leaks. The Chernobyl disaster was caused by poor design and facility management from the beginning, and there had been serious regulation violations.
The Fukushima accident was caused by a 13-meter (42-foot) tsunami. The leaked reactor was only prepared to withstand 9-meter waves. Now, nuclear reactors around the world are better prepared for tsunamis and earthquakes.
Nuclear engineering is a study of “what ifs.” One has to assume all accidents are imaginable and prepare for them. The Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors are prepared for all “what if” scenarios. They are designed so that radiation does not leak when they are struck by earthquakes and tsunamis as in Japan, attacked by an airplane like in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, hit by a North Korean missile or when the operator makes a critical mistake.
The second misconception is the economic view. We believe renewable energy is costly now but that continued investment in technology will make it more affordable. If so, why don’t we trust that investment in nuclear energy will make it cheaper and safer? We need to make a reasonable choice for the present and future. Solar and wind energy are dependent on the natural environment. We cannot make sunlight or wind stronger no matter how much we try. In contrast, nuclear energy is 100 percent dependent on technological innovation. In the end, it is a choice between making our future through technology or the natural environment.
The third myth is on environmental safety. Opponents of nuclear energy argue that used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from nuclear power generation are environmental hazards and a reason to stop nuclear power plant operation.
But that is also not true. No energy source is free from environmental safety concerns. Solar energy is clean, but the industry producing solar panels emits toxic chemicals as a by-product. And after their 20-year lifespan, solar panels become non-biodegradable waste. Radioactive waste produces radiation, yes, but there is also radiation in the natural environment. The radiation from nuclear waste processing can and should be maintained to a natural level.
Of course, high-level waste has a very long half-life, and the safety of extended underground disposal needs to be verified. There are currently experiments in progress to prove the safety of these rare facilities. Aside from the United States, other nuclear power-producing countries do not consider high-level waste as litter. They consider it a recyclable asset. Two years ago, Korea and the United States revised their nuclear power treaty, and Korea has since begun researching how to reprocess nuclear waste. But there is criticism about this valuable research as well.
The fourth misconception is from the perspective of national energy security. Among coal, petroleum, gas, nuclear power and renewable energy, nuclear power is the only indigenous energy source; others are imported. If nuclear energy is reduced and renewable energy increased, we will end up using gas as the main source of power or alternative energy source when there is no wind or sunlight. Transporting and storing gas will surely be a challenge. Korea is considering importing affordable shale gas from the United States. A plan to bring gas from Russia through pipelines over North Korean territory has been discussed for a long time, but we cannot let the United States, Russia and North Korea sway South Korea’s industrial competitiveness. Going nuclear-free could mean losing energy sovereignty.
The current administration promotes fair policies like equal educational opportunities and economic democratization. The government displays great benevolence, but when it comes to energy, it appears to be biased. I hope the government will look at the issue fairly and without prejudice.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 26, Page 29
*The author is a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyung Hee University.