Exporting nuclear power

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Exporting nuclear power

Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee bred the ambition to build energy sovereignty in a country lacking natural fuel by bringing in a research reactor from the United States in 1957. It took 20 years for Korea to finally activate the first indigenous reactor, Kori 1. It has not been easy for Koreans to realize the goal due to restricted accessibility to technology and parts. Having a nuclear reactor did not help to ensure a stable energy supply.

Every time the world was rattled by an oil shock, the energy minister had to fly to the Middle East to plead for crude oil. Today, the country has become a powerhouse in generating commercial nuclear power with 25 reactors in charge of supplying 30 percent of energy to power the nation.

In 1992, Korea further advanced indigenous technology to develop the third-generation standard APR-1400 Advanced Power Reactors with 1,400-megawatt electricity generation capacity and a 60-year life. Its technology gained global recognition to be shipped to the United Arab Emirates (UAC) in 2009 at $18.6 billion. The design is the same applied on the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors whose construction was stopped due to public debate on whether to continue with reactor additions. The oil-producing UAE imported the technology when it was satisfied with the safe yield from the Shin Kori 3 reactor in Korea.

Korea’s reactors are advanced enough to be considered by the U.K., where the Industrial Revolution began 250 years ago. The British draw oil and gas from the North Sea and rely on reactors for 19 percent of their electricity. The government has been replacing aged reactors as they near retirement, mostly consigning the work to French, Chinese and Japanese companies.

Korea Electric Power and its reactor operating unit Korea Hydro & Nuclear have been tapping British officials to join the government-led Moorside project of building a nuclear power plant with a capacity of up to 3.8 gigawatts following the pull-out of the consortium’s biggest stakeholder Toshiba. Other projects in Wylfa, Wales, which Hitachi has been working on, and also in Oldbury have run into similar financial problems.

Korea’s reactor exports would gain impetus if they are installed on U.K. land. Other European countries as well as Latin American markets will be interested in adopting the Korean technology for their new reactors. But if Korea suspends construction of new reactors and stops building them, the plan of marketing and selling them abroad would become difficult.

The British are no longer a manufacturing power even though they gave birth to the Industrial Revolution because they have failed to nurture the industry. Korea’s reactor industry also could crumble if it no longer is in demand at home. When reactors are not being built, technology will backtrack.

Reactor infrastructure significantly weakened in the United States after the nuclear meltdown accident in Three Mile Island in 1979. The country has been building reactors in South Carolina and Georgia, but the project has run into trouble due to a lack of parts and engineers with expertise. It is now paying the price for neglecting reactor investment because of the trauma from the Three Mile accident and a tumble in fuel prices. China and Russia meanwhile made big headway and are dominating the global reactor market.

The country could come under greater risk if the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors are permanently decommissioned. A nuclear phase-out for energy may not go smoothly as it goes against the global trend where even oil producers are building reactors to prepare for the future when they run out of oil. Our nuclear reactor habitat could deteriorate as in the United States and we would one day find ourselves in a mass-scale blackout as Taiwan has been experiencing.

No state or company willingly gives up its cutting edge. There are not many research publications on space, reactor, and semiconductor technologies in fear of a leak in the highly sophisticated technology. Nuclear reactors are as important a home-grown technology asset as semiconductors.

The reactor technology that has been bred and developed for 60 years is in danger of collapsing at the point of nearing the world’s top rank.

The commission gauging public opinion on the fate of the two reactors will deliver its ruling on Oct. 21. We cannot know the conclusion. But when the construction is permanently stopped, 50,000 workers from 760 companies can lose work. The industry would be shaken. The British won’t import a technology from Korea that is abandoned by its own people. Practicality, instead of conviction, should come first on our nuclear reactor technology.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 18, Page 28

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Dong-ho
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