Korea Boasts Global Competitiveness in Nuclear Tech

2010-04-14 : 18:00

The construction site of the Gori power plants in Busan is shown in this Jan. 28 file photo. The Gori plants represent the wherewithal of Koreans to generate electric power from uranium reactors, which has been used to meet the resource-poor country’s energy needs. / Korea Times

By Choi Yearn-hong

Korea is celebrating the sale of its nuclear power expertise to the United Arab Emirates, with KEPCO's $20.4 billion contract to build and operate nuclear power plants. It is more than just another ``sale'' or ``export.'' The deal reflects the present global status of the Korean nuclear science and technology.

The successful deal has proved that Korea has a competitive edge over the United States, France, Canada, Russia, Japan and Britain. The Gori nuclear power plant, the first in Korea, constructed in 1978, was a turnkey project.

Foreign scientists and engineers, in addition to foreign capital, made possible the construction of the first nuclear power plant. Advanced countries were reluctant to transfer their technology to Korea. After 40 years, South Korea has become one of the leading global powerhouses in nuclear science and technology.

That is the reason why the UAE deal is one of President Lee Myung-bak's shining achievements during his two and half years' in office. Another feat of Lee's was helping Korea be selected to host the G-20 Summit forum in November this year.

Construction and operation of nuclear power plants requires high-precision science, as it utilizes highly sensitive radioactive materials. The Gori plant was a miraculous adventure to generate electric power from a uranium reactor. Energy-poor Korea could only resort to nuclear power. Hydraulic and coal burning plants could not cope with the ever-increasing energy need for Korea's rapid industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s.

President Park Chung-hee was far-sighted enough to tackle this problem. Plans to build the nuclear power plant started in the 1970s among a series of economic development projects. Gori was the beginning of Korea's revolution in energy supply for a comprehensive economic development. Energy was the key to successful economic development. The two are intertwined. Economic development is the goal, whereas energy is the means to achieve it. Park was the first head of state who noticed the relationship between the two.

Therefore, Korea's nuclear power plant history is a miraculous economic development, achieved in one short generation.

After joining the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957, Korea started down a long road toward building nuclear power plants. In 1962, Korea's first research reactor achieved critical acclaim.

Seoul National University College of engineering created a new department of nuclear science and technology and attracted young scientists and engineers in the 1960s. Commercial-scale power generation started at the Gori-1 plant in 1978, and another 19 reactors have since been built through a mixture of CANDU (four reactors) and PWR (16 reactors) technologies. Korean scientists and engineers have developed their own reactor models at the Wolseong and Yeonggwang nuclear power plants to meet the growing energy demand from individual households to steel mills and computer, automobile, and ship building industries. Safety records have improved through the successful operation of the 20 nuclear plants.

Korean Model

A Korean standardized nuclear plant (KSNP) has been developed with its own technology. It also took some pointers from Combustion Engineering, which is now Westinghouse Electric. The nuclear plants in Korea have been built using almost entirely its own technology (95 percent) since 1995. Korea celebrated 30 years of nuclear power in 2008.

KEPCO President Kim Jong-shin disclosed in his congratulatory speech the success of Korea's 10-year nuclear power development plan to acquire core technology for independence as advanced nations did not transfer it to Korea in the 1980s.

Korea planned to become fully self-sufficient in nuclear technology by 2012. In addition, Korea was the first country to open a nuclear safety school. In March 2010, Korea hosted ``the nuclear power for peace'' conference in Seoul.

In 2009, Korea won its first export order for four APR-1400 reactors to the UAE. The chief of the UAE's energy corporation said, ``We were impressed with Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) team's world-class safety performance and its demonstrated ability to meet the UAE program goals.''

Korea now has some of the world's most efficient, cutting-edge plant designs. The APR-1400 has a 40 percent higher capacity than the previous model, and it has many new safety features.

According to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy of Korea, the APR-1400's fuel cost is 23 percent lower than France-based AREVA's EPR-1600, known to be the most advanced nuclear power plant in Europe. Korea is also planning the development of its newest nuclear plant design, which will have 10 percent higher capacity and a safety rating better than the APR-1400.

Korea's nuclear power plants currently show an operation rate of 93.4 percent, higher than the United States at 89.9 percent, France at 76.1 percent and Japan at 59.2 percent. Korea's nuclear plants have repeatedly recorded the lowest rate of emergency shutdowns in the world, a record thanks in large to highly standardized design and operating procedures.

The APR-1400 is designated, engineered, built and operated to meet the latest international regulatory requirements concerning safety, including those for aircraft impact resistance.

Safety Standards

Safety is most crucial to all Koreans in a small landmass with a large population. Mishaps at any nuclear power plant could be disastrous to the nation. So nuclear scientists and engineers are always questioning how safe is safe? South Korea has proven so far to be the best in the world in regards to the safety of nuclear power plants. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are unforgettable.

The total electrical generation capacity of the nuclear generators of Korea is over 17.5 GWe. This is 28.5 percent of the generation capacity, but supplies 45 percent of the total electrical consumption, maintaining high capacity factors of over 95 percent.

Korea plans to build more nuclear power plants to keep pace with the increasing demand for electricity. Eight more plants are planned for the period 2010 to 2016, adding 9.4 GWe in total. Some construction is underway right now.

The success behind Korea's achievements in nuclear technology was made possible thanks to strong research and development programs that talented and dedicated Korean scientists have undertaken.

R&D programs have been very active in a variety of advanced reactors, including a small modular reactor, a liquid-metal fast transformation reactor and a high-temperature hydrogen generation design. Fuel production and waste handling technologies have also been developed.

Many idealistic environmentalists protested that nuclear power is not a source of energy, but a ``nuclear power as dangerous as an atomic bomb.''

Searching for a disposal site for nuclear waste was impossible in the 1980s in Korea due to protest movements of the so-called ``not-in-my-backyard'' campaigns. Potential disposal sites on the isolated islands in the Yellow Sea and South Sea were violently opposed by environmentalists and residents in the Gyeongsang, Chungcheong, and Jeolla provinces.

The decision was ultimately made to select a low-level nuclear waste disposal site near the Weolseong plants after the Gyeoungju citizens conducted their own referendum in 2005.

From turnkey projects to licensing, and then to self-innovation, Korea has made significant progress. Today, Korea is at the top of advanced nuclear science and technology.

It is a nation that can transfer its advanced technology to developing nations. Korea is a nation that can be proud of its advancement in these areas. That is why U.S. President Barrack Obama has been praising Korean people for their brilliant achievements to change their fate in a short span of time.

Korean people's educational zeal and their systematic thinking in terms of science and technology for the nation's economic well-being deserve worldwide praise.

Life is inseparable from science. Science is for life. Technology transfer is the application of technology to a new use or user. It is the process by which technology developed for one purpose is employed either in a different application or by a new user. Therefore, technology transfer is sometimes un-purposive or ``accidental.'' Technology transfer is sometimes undistinguishable from technology diffusion.

Korea cannot dwell on its present state. Technology cannot stand still. It is always moving and flowing. Therefore, Korea should be engaged in innovations in science and technology.

If not, it will lose its edge in international competition. The global market is getting tougher. China, India, Brazil and other developing nations are challenging Korea. As it has innovated nuclear science and technologies, it should innovate for the UAE people. Once Korea can expand to new regions, possibly in Turkey and Jordan, it should start thinking of new technology for their natural and physical environments. The UAE is a desert country. Jordan is not very different. Turkey is very different in its natural and physical environments, so different technology innovations and transfers are necessary.

At this moment, safe disposal methods and technical management for the UAE, if not done already, are necessary. No nation has yet found a safe disposal site for high-level nuclear waste. The United States with its vast land mass has been struggling to find a suitable location. President Barack Obama nullified the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada upon taking office.

However, he proposed more research and development projects for waste disposal methods. The UAE is a small nation located in a vast desert. Constructing a safe plant is one thing. Sooner or later, nuclear waste will be generated. How can the UAE dispose of its waste safely? If the Korean nuclear scientists can demonstrate its advanced disposal technology, then they can continue to win international bids.

Fossil fuels will be depleted in a century or so. Nuclear energy is not yet an alternative energy to fossil fuel, due to the unresolved issues concerning waste disposal. Containing the waste in glass is a safe method, but an expensive one. Waste reduction technology is not enough. Waste recycling is not enough. Granite rocks can provide one medium. Deserts could be advantageous to safe nuclear waste disposal.

Korea has started a great march toward building globally competitive nuclear power plants. Nuclear power has been and is a miraculous power source for the energy-poor nation. President Park Chung-hee's government launched a series of ambitious economic development plans with carefully designed nuclear power plants in four coastal towns. His leadership deserves the most recognition in the nation's dramatic change from a poor farming nation to a major industrial power.

Korea will now host a G-20 summit forum. It is now an exporter of nuclear power plants to the nations in need of nuclear energy source. It is now a model nation that has been using nuclear power with a safe operating record on one side and advocating peace and prosperity in this world on the other.

Pull Quote part

President Park Chung-hee was far-sighted enough to tackle energy problems for Korea. Projects began to build the nuclear power plant to generate power in the 1970s for a series of economic development planning. Gori was the beginning of Korean revolution in energy supply for a comprehensive economic policy. Energy was a key to successful economic development. The two are intertwined. Economic development is the goal, whereas energy is the means to achieve that goal. Park was the first person who noticed the relationship between energy and economic development.

Therefore, Korea's history of nuclear power plants is the history of miraculous economic development she has achieved in a short one generation.

Who is Choi Yearn-hong?

The writer received his undergraduate degree in public administration from Yonsei University and his masters and doctorate degree in political science (public administration) from Indiana University. He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Old Dominion University, and worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1981-1983) as an assistant for environmental quality (NASPAA Fellow) before returning to Korea.

He is a retired professor and chairman of the environmental policy program at the University of Seoul's Graduate School of Urban Sciences, and a member of the Presidential Commission on Sustainable Development. His name is listed in World Who Is Who and Does What in Environment and Conservation (Geneva, Switzerland). He contributed articles to the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (USA) on Korean environmental affairs.