Phasing ourselves outDuring his recent visit to Kazakhstan, President Moon Jae-in received an invitation from Nursultan Nazarbayev, chairman of the United Nations Security Council and a president who had been in power from 1990 until last month, to join what would be the country’s first nuclear reactor project. Nazarbayev, still the most powerful man in the country, explained that his country is considering replacing a project to build a thermal power plant with one to build a nuclear power plant for environmental reasons. Citing Korea’s successful construction of the first nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he asked Korea to consider making a bid.
Moon, who has been phasing out nuclear reactors at home, has made unexpected sales pitches for reactors. Kazakhstan may have high regards for Korea’s nuclear reactor technology. But it remains uncertain whether the purchase will take place. China and others will most likely also make bids. Korea must prove competitiveness in technology and security to win the bid.
To ensure repair and maintenance of a nuclear reactor whose life must be ensured for at least 30 years after construction, the value network of parts and engineers is pivotal. The habitat of reactors ranging from designers to engineers could be wrecked as President Moon already vowed to stop building nuclear reactors after the Shin Kori 5, 6 units are completed in 2021. The risk can be a major drawback in Korea’s international bid for reactors.
The industry and academic world already fear brain drains. At the nuclear engineering department of Seoul National University, six out of 32 freshmen quit school last year. At another elite engineering school, Kaist, only four out of 750 sophomores chose atomic power and quantum engineering, compared with the average 20 from 2010 to 2016. The supply chain will inevitably come down if orders for equipment and parts stop.
While we waste our hard-won world-class reactor technology, other governments are busy promoting reactors. Sooner or later, Korea’s technology will lose competitiveness and one day we’ll be completely unable to build one. No countries would want to buy a technology that has been shunned at home. The government must face the reality as it is for a change.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 34