The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation(ENEC) announced that the Barakah unit 1, the nuclear power plant that Korea exported, started its commercial operation from April 6th.
/Photography from Korean Electric Power Corporation(KEPCO)
The highest temperature during daytime has hovered around 35 degrees Celsius in July. It reminded us of the record-breaking heat wave of 2018, which recorded 41 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature ever since the weather observation of Korea began. Short rainy season of this summer which ended so quickly in mid-July also worsened the heat wave. Moreover, as people are telecommuting and students are taking non-face-to-face classes due to COVID-19, increased electricity power consumption in households is also noticeable. According to the Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), electricity consumption of this summer is expected to be the highest among the past three years, which might be higher than the worst heat wave of 2018. As the concern about the electricity power supply is growing, the news that the government ordered public institutions to stop running the air conditioners for thirty minutes by region from 2P.M. to 5P.M., which is the time that most electricity is consumed, became a hot topic. Eventually, the government has announced that three nuclear power plants that had been shut down for maintenance and some other reasons will get restarted from July 19th to contribute to the electricity power supply. However, some criticize that the government, which has been pushing nuclear power phase-out policies steadily, has yet to find a stable alternative power source as they chose to restart nuclear power plants as a solution to resolve power shortage problems.
What is the nuclear power situation in Korea?
Before getting into the current status of Korean nuclear power generation, what is nuclear power generation? As a neutron collides into a heavy atom, such as uranium, two to three neutrons are released when the nucleus of an atom gets divided. This is called “nuclear fission reaction” and the energy released during this process is nuclear fission energy. By colliding the neutrons generated from the nuclear fission reaction into other heavy atoms over and over, a series of nuclear fission reactions is caused, and a huge amount of energy is released. This is called “nuclear chain reaction.” Nuclear power generation produces electricity by running a turbine generator using high temperature and high-pressure steam created by the energy generated from the nuclear chain reaction.
According to the 2021 edition of Korea Electric Power Statistics announced by KEPCO, nuclear power generation accounted for 160,184GWh last year, which is about 28% of the total electricity generation amount. It was the second-largest following thermal power generation. Korea is now running 24 nuclear power plants including the Kori nuclear power plant, the first nuclear power plant of Korea located across Busan and Ulsan, which started running in 1978, Wolsong nuclear power plant of Gyeongju, Hanbit nuclear power plant of Yeonggwang and Hanul nuclear power plant of Uljin. Korea’s nuclear power generation is the sixth largest in the world and in terms of nuclear power plant density, Korea ranked the highest throughout the world. In 2010, Korea won the competition against advanced nuclear power countries such as France and the United States to sign a contract to export nuclear power plants to the United Arab Emirates. Korea finally became a nuclear power plant exporting country since the first atomic energy research institute was established in 1959. To commemorate it, December 27th was designated as a “Nuclear Safety and Promotion Day.”
Discussion begins about phasing out nuclear power
The Fukushima nuclear accident, which happened in 2011 and is classified as the second level 7 nuclear accident in the history of mankind following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, had a significant impact on Korea’s nuclear power phase-out movement. The fact that most of the 19th presidential candidates have pledged to phase out nuclear power generation shows that it has been a major issue to our society. Moon Jae-in, the 19th president of Korea, has proposed energy policies such as rescinding the plans for building new nuclear power plants and increasing the renewable energy generation ratio up to 20% by 2030 since the 18th presidential election. After watching the movie “Pandora”, a nuclear disaster film released in 2016, he also said that we should prevent nuclear accidents by stopping new nuclear power plant constructions even though the probability of a nuclear accident is only one in a million and make a step forward towards a nuclear-free country.
Then, what are the reasons for phasing out nuclear power generation? The Fukushima nuclear accident, which happened in the neighboring country Japan, has aroused anxiety that a major nuclear accident may also occur in Korea. There have been a lot of big and small earthquakes in Korea recently and especially in the Yeongnam region, earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.0 or more occurred, including the 2016 Gyeongju earthquake and the 2017 Pohang earthquake. The reason for frequent earthquakes in the Yeongnam region is that the Yangsan fault, which is said to be the largest active fault of the Korean peninsula, is below the region. As 18 out of 24 nuclear power plants are concentrated in the Yeongnam region and cities with high population density, such as Busan and Ulsan, are nearby, the possibility of a major nuclear accident caused by an earthquake has been mentioned. Previously, the issue around nuclear power was only dealt with at the local level, but the Fukushima accident and frequent earthquakes have become an opportunity for the people to realize that they are also within the danger zone of nuclear accidents, and they could also be the victim.
According to the environmental statistics of the countries around the world published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015, Korea is one of the top countries in radioactive waste production along with Japan and the United States. A radioactive waste is the material generated during the nuclear power generation process that is no longer worth using. In 2015, a radioactive waste disposal facility was established in Gyeongju and it can store a hundred thousand drums of radioactive waste permanently. However, space is limited and the time Gyeongju radioactive waste disposal facility reaches saturation will come. Then, a new site to build another radioactive waste disposal facility will be needed. No residents would welcome an unpleasant facility to be built in their region, so the amount of money needed in compensation for the residents will be a big obstacle in radioactive waste treating problem.
There has been controversy over the government’s policies
The government has been pushing denuclearization policies that benchmarks the European countries that has been pushing it since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986. According to the government’s nuclear power phase-out roadmap, it is not immediately shutting down and disassembling all nuclear power plants. As the design lifetime of a nuclear power plant is about 60 years, by not extending the lives of the nuclear power plants that have reached the end of their lifetime and building no more nuclear power plants, Korea will be able to reach zero nuclear power plant by around 2079.
Looking through some major current government policies, they stopped the construction of Kori unit 5 and 6 on July 2017, which started its construction on June 2016, and about 28% of its process was already done. However, due to the strong opposition of the local residents and experts, the government decided to organize a public committee to listen to different opinions and decide whether to suspend the construction or not. On October 20th, after three months of discussion, the committee concluded the construction should resume with 59.5% in favor and 40.5% in opposition.
They also canceled the plans for six new nuclear power plants that were planned to be built. The construction plans of the Hanul unit 3 and 4, which were planned to be built at Uljin, and the Cheonji units, planned to be built at Yeongdeok were canceled. About 340 billion won has become a burial cost as 270 billion won has already been spent on design services of Hanul units and 70 billion won has been spent on purchasing land for Cheonji units.
In 2018, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) announced the early closure of the Wolsong unit 1 based on economic evaluation. However, the fact that they spent about 700 billion won on replacing old facilities of Wolsong unit 1 to extend its lifetime, which was designed to be used until 2012, and received approval of its life extension until 2022 from the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission provoked controversy. As there were no issues in the safety evaluation, suspicions have been raised that the economic value of Wolsong unit 1 has been arbitrarily reduced.
Some people still think that nuclear power is necessary
Nuclear experts say that anxiety about nuclear power plant disasters is exaggerated as there are technical differences between Chernobyl, Fukushima power plants and Korean power plants. Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants used Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), which generate steam to turn the turbine directly from the reactor. However, Korea’s nuclear power plants adopted Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR). This is not a method of generating steam directly from the reactor but from a separate steam generator. As hot steam generated from the reactor heats the steam generator, it creates steam to turn the turbine. The big difference between these two systems is whether the water that contacted the fuel rods come out of the hangar or not. PWR system is considered highly safe as the water that reached the reactor circulates only inside the hangar, which can survive even if a plane crashes into it. In the past, BWR was mainly used due to its efficiency. However, PWR is being adopted nowadays considering safety prior to efficiency.
In addition, 21 out of 24 nuclear power plants are designed to endure earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 and the rest three can endure up to 6.5. The Kori unit 5 and 6, which are currently under construction, were even designed to endure earthquakes with a magnitude up to 7.4. The energy amount of the 5.8 magnitude Gyeongju earthquake in 2016, which was the largest in the history of domestic observations, is only 1/63 of the energy of the 7.0 earthquake, the seismic design standard of Korean nuclear power plants.
It is still doubtful whether new and renewable energy can replace nuclear energy. To replace nuclear power generation, the government planned to promote eco-friendly power generation such as solar power and wind power up to 20%, which is now about 7% of total generation amount. However, eco-friendly energy such as solar and wind power is not suitable in Korea. As most of the land is mountainous, mountains are being deforested and trees are being cut down to set up solar panels and the resulting landslide problem is damaging residents of the surrounding area. Also, fine dust and yellow dust blowing from China in spring and rainy season in summer greatly influence solar power generation efficiency. Wind turbines are worthless when no winds are blowing. As eco-friendly energy is greatly influenced by environmental factors, it cannot be relied on for constant electricity production.
Since the government’s denuclearization policies are being processed quite quickly, the nuclear power plant business ecosystem is facing a crisis and it might lead to the weakening of nuclear power infrastructure. As domestic demand for nuclear power is decreasing, students are hesitating to apply to the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the outflow of talented nuclear mechanics and advanced nuclear technology to overseas companies is continuing. With the appearance of climate change such as global warming, even the European countries, which have been pushing denuclearization policies for a long time, are turning to build nuclear power plants as there are no suitable ways to reduce carbon emissions. The United Kingdom, which has been pushing denuclearization since the mid-1990s, is facing difficulty in restoring the nuclear power plant infrastructure even though they were the first country to own a nuclear power plant in 1956 as they have been on the path of denuclearization for a long time.
In the case of Taiwan, the government pushed for a policy to stop all nuclear power plants in the country by 2025. However, in 2018, national referendum of abolishing the electricity act regulating denuclearization put a brake on the government’s radical denuclearization policy as 59% of citizens agreed to it. Paying attention to energy issues and staying tuned to the government’s energy policies is important. It might seem like it has nothing to do with you, but electricity is being used everywhere in daily life and it is hard to imagine a life without it.
Yoo Joon-sang email@example.com
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