Nuclear blues

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Nuclear blues


Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Moon Jae-in is in the habit of offering a review after seeing a new movie. After watching “Heaven’s Door,” a historical film on renowned scientist Jang Yeong-sil in the 15th-century Joseon, he expressed his awe at the “renaissance of science and engineering in the era under King Sejong” and recommended it as a must-see. The film added lots of fiction. For instance, the movie shows that the Ming Dynasty of China interfered in Jang’s work, which is not found in the historical records.

Actually, it was the noble class who opposed Jang’s work on astronomical objects. As the elites were blind followers of Sinocentrism, they did not see why Joseon needed its separate skills when it should respect Chinese studies, language and methods. If not for the strong will of King Sejong, Koreans might not ever have seen the day of hangul — the Korean alphabet — or their own set of astronomical tools.

The thought led to today’s pitiful state of nuclear reactor technology. Nuclear reactor technology epitomizes South Korea’s science and technology power together with semiconductors. Investment dates back to the founding government under first president Syngman Rhee. South Korea had to embark on the development of nuclear reactors without any financial and technological support from the United States. But it was necessary for a country with no oil. Korea reached the world’s top in reactor technology 60 years later. In 2009, Korea’s indigenous APR-1400 next-generation reactor model was adopted by the United Arab Emirates for its first reactor project. Korean design is rated highly by the United States and Europe. Reactors symbolize Korea’s renaissance in science.


Members of the Korea Academy of Nuclear Safety urge the government to change its nuclear phase-out policy in 2019. [KOREA ACADEMY OF NUCLEAR SAFETY]

But that hard-won legacy has been destroyed. The government has decommissioned a perfectly good reactor on questionable grounds and scrapped the plans for any new construction. Even the United States, which does not need to worry about running out of energy due to rich shale gas reserves, runs reactors up to 80 years after upgrades. Korea’s first reactor, Kori 1, retired in 2017 after operating up to its extended life. But the Wolseong-1 reactor, which was upgraded at a cost of 700 billion won ($567 million), was decommissioned although it was capable of running till 2022. The shutdown process was reckless. When safety was not an issue, the authority argued the reactor was uneconomical and pushed ahead with the closure based on the worst case scenario.

A sensible government cannot so easily close a reactor that costs 4 trillion won to 5 trillion won to build. The National Assembly gave a go-ahead to investigate the suspicious process. But the Board of Audit and Inspection has passed its deadline to finish the inspection and still withholds its findings. The government reasons a nuclear phase-out is to rationalize energy policy. Doosan Heavy Industries has little work and must let go of veteran engineers.

The potential dangers do not outweigh the merits of nuclear reactors. There is no reported death from the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. Korean reactors are designed to be resilient even if a plane crashes into them. The movie “Pandora” about a nuclear disaster in Korea is fiction.

A rash shift to renewables has been causing side effects. Solar panels at best have a generating efficiency of 24 percent. Wind power grids are expensive and noisy. Last year, state utility Korea Electric Power Corporation incurred a colossal operating loss of 1.36 trillion won after reactor utilization rate fell to 70 percent from 80 to 85 percent in the past. Electricity bills will shoot up. A study claimed the cost of a nuclear phase-out could reach 513 trillion won.

Fundamentalist opponents argue that France, a nuclear reactor power, has decided to reduce the share of nuclear energy to 50 percent from 72 percent. But that’s not a nuclear phase-out.
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