Nuclear energy is the answer

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Nuclear energy is the answer


Min Byung-joo, President of the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS)

Min Byung-joo, president of the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS), sees herself as “hard-core non-mainstream.” She really is one of a kind — a female engineer who majored in nuclear physics. Her academic record as a nuclear scientist stands out even more considering that she studied physics at Ewha Womans University, not nuclear engineering at Seoul National University or Hanyang University. However, her undergraduate degree didn’t stop her from studying abroad in Japan. After receiving a doctorate degree in nuclear physics from Kyushu University, she returned home to join the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. Among 2,000 staff members, 700 of them with doctorate degrees, she was the only female researcher. Last September, she became the first-ever female president of the male-dominated KNS.

The KNS, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, consists mostly of male members. Unsurprisingly, all 31 of the former presidents have been male.

“I will make every effort to facilitate proper nuclear power plant policy by transforming the nuclear field, which currently stands as an isolated island, into an open square of communication,” said the president in her interview conducted at an office of the KNS located in Yuseong District, Daejeon. Below are the edited excerpts.

Q. Congratulations on your inauguration.

. Thank you. The election was actually held last year. The election system mandates the president-elect to spend a one-year transition period as the chief vice president before assuming the position. Anyway, the inauguration ceremony took place last September. Throughout KNS’s history, it was the first inauguration ceremony.

Do you mean that there hasn’t been a single inauguration ceremony for the last 50 years?

As a matter of fact, yes. There is a tiny pool of nuclear majors doing similar jobs, so they kind of shut themselves out. An isolated island, so to speak. There was nothing special going on [to draw attention.] Anyhow, presidents of different science academies including the math academy kindly attended the event.

Is there any special reason for holding the ceremony?

I wanted to bring down the closed culture of the [nuclear] society I just talked about. The nuclear society should distance itself from becoming isolated and transform into an active public square of communication. Nuclear is an easy subject between experts, but they are all thumbs when it comes to explaining the nuclear field to others. So when Korean people see us saying no to the government’s nuclear phase-out policy, they just look away, mistaking that our protest is confined to protecting our own special interests.

There have been concerns from members within the nuclear power field.

That’s because of the nuclear phase-out policy. After the administration brought the issue to the public, the construction of the Shin-Kori 5 and 6 nuclear reactors went as planned, but the construction of the Shin Hanul 3 and 4 reactors in Uljin County, North Gyeongsang was put on hold. The issue of halting the operation of the Wolsong 1 reactor was shelved after the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission discussed the issue last week. The nuclear field is enveloped in a fog of uncertainty. There are rumblings concerning electricity prices, too.

Hasn’t the KNS taken a stand against the administration from early on?

I am disappointed, not as the president of the KNS, but as a member of this country. In order to provide clean and safe energy, the government pledged to scale down nuclear power plants and expand renewable energy, but problems have emerged. Securing a stable energy source has become unreliable, and Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power are in deficits. Indiscriminate development of renewable energy caused a lot of damage. Energy [policy] has an immense influence on a country’s development of sustainable energy. The administration’s choice should be built on discussion and consensus among interest parties along with experts.

Can you feel the impact of the nuclear phase-out policy?

Of course, the impact hasn’t been materialized in real life for most of the [KNS] members including professors and researchers. However, immediate concern is about personnel. If the nuclear phase-out continues at this speed, the field will lose expert research personnel to foreign countries which will make a huge hole in Korea’s nuclear technology, and an insufficient supply of basic personnel can undermine safe operation and management of nuclear reactors. Also, should parts and equipment companies close their doors, it could cause a serious threat to the maintenance of reactors. Participants of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was held recently, expressed their growing concerns over the issue.

What do you think about renewable energy?

There is no such thing as perfect energy in this world. Each has pros and cons. However, at this point, developing renewable energy is premature and costly. Long-term policy that transcends administrations must be established based on a consideration over which energy best fits our circumstances and which one is most sustainable.

Nuclear power has its advantage in emitting zero CO2, but there is no solution for taking care of nuclear waste.

That is right. But there is no suitable alternative. So realistically, nuclear power must stay for power supply while more attention is allocated on safety. The optimal ratio of nuclear power could be found somewhere near the minimum amount of electricity needed for households and companies.

Until now, research was focused on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle aimed at securing more supply, but from now on, more emphasis should be on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle such as taking care of nuclear wastes. I suggested preparing for this issue 10 years ago, but it didn’t really work out. Though it’s a bit late, we are engaging in discussions on the back-end cycle starting now. Korea’s nuclear development is imbalanced. Let’s find the balance rather than killing the whole program.

What is the future nuclear power policy?

The current nuclear phase-out policy clearly has a problem. Views on nuclear power changed after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and recent earthquakes in Pohang and Gyeongju. For Korea’s sustainable development, the people must make a comprehensive decision with experts on which policy to pursue after checking the pros and cons of the energies currently in use. However, the nuclear phase-out policy is prejudiced against nuclear energy before evaluation of the energy even starts. Discussions and consensus should come from not only the government but also from interest parties.

During an audit at the National Assembly, Kepco CEO Kim Jong-kap said, “For the time being, there is no plan for increasing electricity prices.”

The price hike is inevitable. Kepco can’t condone the deficit forever. Without raising the price, there is no investment, and Korea’s energy supply will face a problem. A price increase is necessary as long as it doesn’t put a burden on people with low incomes who can’t afford to pay a higher price.

How would you like to lead the KNS in the future?

The KNS should stay independent in the face of social conflicts and political interests and solely focus on communicating with the people based on scientific and engineering facts. I will do my best until Korean people can say, “I can trust what the KNS says.” The nuclear power field has been criticized for incompliance to procedure, poor operation of reactors, forging of quality documentation and erroneous analysis of nuclide. I will do everything in my power for nuclear power to regain trust and the KNS to make progress again.

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