Reactor industry needs action, not hot air
The author is a professor of nuclear engineering department in Kyung Hee University.
The nuclear reactor designs by Westinghouse Electric of the U.S. and Areva of France cost two to three times more than South Korea’s reactor technology in bids for the first reactor project by the United Arab Emirates. Areva was behind 13 years in finishing the European pressurized Olkiluoto reactors and Westinghouse six years with the Vogtle plant project in Georgia. Korea delivered the UAE reactors within the original timetable.
South Korea’s competitiveness in reactors came from the industrial habitat and engineering supremacy. South Korea has built a reactor every one or two years. Skills behind design, engineering, parts, construction, testing, and operation and maintenance have been kept up as a result. Engineers are essential to sustaining the technology. Korea was able to excel over the U.S., U.K. and France, all of whom had suspended reactors for some time.
Our reactor industry, however, has been on the brink of collapse under the previous Moon Jae-in government’s policy to end our reliance on nuclear power. The new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol reversed the policy and proclaimed it support to reactor exports. But the reactor industry cannot suddenly regain life through rhetoric alone. The government proposes to renew construction of the Shin Hanul reactor units three and four and sustain operation of 10 reactors while exporting 10 reactors. But the plan is not backed by specific action.
The construction of Shin Hanul units 3 and 4 that were suspended after 10 percent completion will be renewed only from 2025. The industry and engineering capacity cannot suddenly become revived after five years of hiatus and financial strains. Reviving the construction habitat and raising industrial competitiveness should come before renewing construction. The outline appears to be a mere projection and cannot help the industry.
Power demand will only increase in line with electrification and digitalization. Although the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing nationally determined contribution (NDC) for carbon reduction to 40 percent remains intact, there is no mention of reactor additions. The government has not specified whether to revive the Cheonju 1, 2 and Daejin 1, 2 reactors, whose projects have been scrapped. Although promising to rationalize its energy mix policy, the government does not outline expansion in reactors.
If reactors are not newly fed and remain in keeping up the status quo, the reactor habitat would only worsen. Replacing cars and smartphones after several years could appear as wasteful. But the cycle has helped to strengthen domestic manufacturing infrastructure and make the country a powerhouse in the category. Domestic production and demand must be sustained to some extent for exports. To back reactor exports and competitiveness, the government should consider building new reactors instead of extending the life of existing reactors.
Reactor experts are no longer included in energy or power related committees of industry and energy ministry or carbon neutrality committee of the environment ministry. A reactor policy cannot be expected under such a structure. It contradicts the plan to expand the industry and energy ministry to add reactor assistance minister, reactor export officer, launch an export strategy team and add missions to countries of potential export.
Korea’s reactor exports should be part of a strategy to sustain the country’s competitiveness in reactors. Restoring the habitat and export competitiveness depends on real work, not rhetoric.