Korea Eager to Promote Use of Nuclear Power
Puts more energy into securing core and original technologies in order to make nuclear power a national growth engine
The following are excerpts of a NewsWorld interview with Moon Byung-ryong, director general of the Atomic Energy Bureau at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST), who spoke about the nation's technology self-sufficiency efforts and other policies related to nuclear power.
Question: Korea's celebration of the 50th anniversary of nuclear power can be summed up as a history of great challenges and achievements. Will you give an assessment of the achievements?
Answer: Korea's nuclear power, marking half a century, can be considered to be a birthplace of science and technology and a buttress behind the nation's economic development. Nuclear power, a comprehensive discipline of science and technology, is the birthplace of the nation's science and technology and takes the lead in the sector. The Atomic Power Department, sanctioned by the then Ministry of Education in 1956, inaugurated a program for nurturing nuclear power experts, the beginning of Korea's science and technology manpower development. For about a decade between 1955 and 1964, 237 students were sent abroad to study in such countries as the United States, the UK and France under scholarships, and they are now at the forefront of the Korean science and technology fields.
Besides, nuclear power has served as a strong buttress behind explosive economic growth and stabilization of electricity prices. During the period between 1986 and 2006, domestic consumer prices soared 250 percent, but the unit price of electricity edged up only 16.6 percent to 76.4 won from 65.5 won per kWh of electricity. It was possible because nuclear power, with the lowest electricity production unit price, accounted for 36 percent of the nation's total power generation. Power production unit prices were 39 won for nuclear power, 54 won for coal-generated electricity and 647 won for photovoltaic power.
Q: As France, Japan and Russia now seek to build additional nuclear power units, and Switzerland and Italy, which have so far taken a negative attitude toward nuclear power, show signs of resuming nuclear power construction, the world sees an era of the second reconnaissance of nuclear power being ushered in. Why is that?
A: Nations across the globe are facing two tasks ¡ª securing a stable energy supply and coping with climate change.
These days, the global economic downturn has dampened crude oil prices, but we are unlikely to return to the era of cheap energy as in the past. As a result, nations are scrambling to secure a stable of supply of energy sources more vehemently than ever, and resource nationalism seems likely to further prevail in the years to come. The quickening pace of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is boosting the debate on each nation's commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions. With the reality of mandatory greenhouse gas emission reductions, the use of fossil fuels, including petroleum, will be restricted and the costs for carbon credits will be levied.
Nuclear power emerges as the most reliable alternative solution to addressing the problem of climate change. Nuclear power is considered to be a low-carbon, clean energy with the lowest power production unit price and emits almost no greenhouse gases. A report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that nuclear power's total emissions are lower than its counterparts ¡ª photovoltaic power and wind power.
Renewable energy sources could be thought of as an option, of course, but the reality is that the development of renewable energy sources could have infinite potential, yet they are now less economical than fossil fuels.
Q: What is our government's plan to raise nuclear power's portion of the nation's annual total power generation from 36 percent to 59 percent by 2030?
A: Technology-intensive nuclear power befits a nation like Korea with poor natural resources yet advanced technology. Nuclear power's fuel cost portion of power production unit price is 13 percent, a lot lower than the roughly 60 percent for coal, 79 percent for liquefied natural gas and 75 percent for heavy oil. This could ease the nation's dependence on energy imports and contribute to securing energy security. In 2006, the power production generated by nuclear power cost approximately 700 billion won, quite lower than the 12.3 trillion won for heavy oil, thus leading to a reduction in imports worth roughly 11.6 trillion won.
Korea emitted about 600 million tons of greenhouse gases as of 2006, ranking ninth in the world in terms of emissions. The nation needs to shift its energy paradigm away from fossil fuels in order to brace for the implementation of climate change pacts.
Last August, the government determined a plan to increase nuclear power's percentage from 36 percent to 59 percent in an effort to drive the nation to the pursuit of green growth by securing a stable supply of an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases. To this end, Korea plans to construct 10 more nuclear power units in addition to the eight units now under construction or under deliberation.
Q: Nuclear power has a lot of strong points, but the general public still has negative views against nuclear power due to lingering memories of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and demonstrations against the construction of a low- and intermediate- grade radioactive waste facility. How much have Korea's nuclear power safety and safety-related technology levels gone up?
A: Korean nuclear units' unplanned shutdown levels were the lowest compared to advanced countries. Recent data on the comparison of forced capability loss rates, released by the IAEA, showed that Korea's median value of 0.6 percent during the period between 2005 and 2007 was quite excellent compared to 1.6 percent in the United States, 5.1 percent in France and 9 percent in Japan. The forced capability loss rate measures a plant's outage time and power reductions that result from unplanned equipment failures, human errors or other conditions when the plant is expected to be generating electricity.
Korea's average capacity factor, the ratio of the net electricity generated for the time considered, to the energy that could have been generated at continuous full-power operating during the same period, has surpassed more than 90 percent, about 14 percentage points above the global average. This higher capacity factor could translate into savings of about 3 trillion won, an equivalent of the investment for the construction of one 1MWh-class unit or more.
Q: Amid the global economic recession, nuclear power holds out hope for economic development. Will you tell us about a plan to boost nuclear power exports abroad?
A: Kori Nuclear Power Unit 1, the nation's first, that made its debut in 1978, was constructed in a turn-key method in which the nation is in charge of operating the unit built with foreign technology. The Korean nuclear industry has come from strength to strength as it successfully achieved self-sufficiency with the development of the Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant (OPR1000) and the updated pressurized light water reactor, 1400MW Advanced Power Reactor (APR1400).
By capitalizing on this competitive edge, Korea, designating this year as the first year for exporting nuclear power, is pulling out all the stops to become a powerhouse capable of exporting reactors with a bigger magnitude and spillover effects. The nation is at the crossroads of becoming a nuclear system export country as it participates in bidding on the Netherlands' research reactor project and seeks to export nuclear power plants to such countries as Jordan.
With regard to the APR1400, which Korea seeks to export, Korea is concentrating on localizing some foreign technologies used in the reactor whose sub-license could surface.
In particular, Korea strives to advance the development of the smaller reactor, SMART, in order to get a jumpstart in the niche markets where Korean companies have a technological edge compared to competitors, including the United States and Argentina. In cooperation with Korean export promotion organizations, the Korean government plans to provide support to help nuclear power import countries build safety and other infrastructure essential for the introduction of nuclear power.
Q: The issue of treating spent nuclear fuel needs to be addressed urgently. Are there ways to solve this?
A: In the past three decades, Korea has enjoyed many benefits arising from the development of nuclear power, but spent nuclear fuel, the inherent by-product of nuclear power generation, whose storage is in a saturation stage, has emerged as the greatest hindrance to the future expansion of the utilization of nuclear power.
Accordingly, together with steps to fix this problem completely, there is a need for the development of technology for recycling spent nuclear fuel designed to ensure the sustainability of nuclear power as an environmentally-friendly energy source. To this end, the government is working on the development of the pyroprocessing technology for nuclear non-proliferation and the Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor (SFR), a next-generation nuclear system. This technology could be employed not only to recycle spent nuclear fuel to generate power, but also to reduce radwaste amounts to one-twentieth and radioactive toxicity to 1/1000 of current levels.
Q: Many pundits make a forecast of ushering in the hydrogen economy era in earnest by the 2030s. How is the process of developing hydrogen production systems using nuclear power?
A: Hydrogen is the most abundant energy source on earth and draws much attention as a green energy of the future that does not emit greenhouse gases. Many experts predict the arrival of the full-fledged hydrogen economy era in the 2030s, but the precondition is the production of economical hydrogen as a fuel. The production of hydrogen is made through diverse methods, but the most commercialized one is via methane gas, which is undesirable because of its limited availability and carbon dioxide emissions during the production process.
As a result, diverse studies are under way globally on producing hydrogen as a fuel, which is reckoned to be economical and emits no carbon dioxide. Among them, the production of hydrogen via nuclear power befits that specification. A report released by the U.S. National Academies indicated that the production of 1 kg of hydrogen via nuclear power turned out to be the most economical at $1.63, compared to $4.14 through electrolysis of water and $6.18 via photovoltaic power.
Q: Does the government plan to promote the continuous use and expansion of nuclear power as an axis of its low-carbon, green growth initiatives?
A: To this end, the government plans to strategically invest and cultivate areas in which pending issues will be solved domestically and national growth engines will be nurtured. It will step up its export competitiveness by developing the core and original technologies of small- and medium-size reactors and large-size commercial nuclear power units.
The government strives to enhance the environmental-friendliness and sustainability of nuclear power through the development of a technology for recycling spent nuclear fuel while trying to make Korea a country with energy self-sufficiency through the development of a technology producing hydrogen as a green energy of the future.
In a bid to help these strategies pay off, continuous investments will be made without a strict focus on short-term performance, given the reality that securing the core technology of nuclear power requires a great investment of time. nw
Moon Byung-ryong, director general of the Atomic Energy Bureau at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology