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A national treasure scorned

This country’s nuclear engineers will be out of work. They can take their talents to China.
July 22,2017
South Korean President Park Chung Hee decided he needed nuclear weapons as protection against North Korean threats after the 20,000-strong 7th U.S. Infantry Division pulled out of the country in March 1971. Canadian reactor company CANDU approached the Seoul government. It offered to install its National Research reactor (NRX), capable of generating 30,000 kilowatt of electricity, if it was awarded the contract to design the Wolseong 1 reactor in Korea. Unlike the earlier Westinghouse-designed reactors that used normal water as a coolant and neutron moderator, CANDU’s research reactor ran on so-called heavy water, which is effective in producing plutonium, fissile material for atomic bombs.

About the time Seoul was to bring in the Canadian research reactor, India tested a nuclear bomb from plutonium extracted from the same kind of nuclear reactor. Fearful of a similar move by Seoul, Washington blocked the deal. Washington kept that sanction on the country until President Chun Doo Hwan formally pledged not to make nuclear weapons. Just when all possible dreams of developing nuclear technology had been dashed, another opportunity arose for South Korea. In 1979, a nuclear meltdown occurred on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. That put a complete stop to construction of new reactors in the U.S. The two reactor manufacturers, Westinghouse and Combustion Engineering (CE), panicked about a potential end to their businesses.

CE lobbied hard with South Korea as it was the only country with a plan to build more than 10 commercial reactors. CE offered to transfer the design technology if it was awarded a contract to build two reactors in the Yonggwang complex. That was how South Korea was able to achieve technological self-sufficiency based on the CE system to develop its own standardized OPR-1000, two-loop 1,000MW pressurized water reactor design.

In 1992, South Korea went further to develop a third-generation standard. By 1999, it had mastered the APR-1400 design Advanced Power Reactor with 1,400MW electricity generating capacity and a 60-year life. The Shin Kori unit 3 was built with the new design, which was in 2009 exported as the base system for four reactors in the United Arab Emirates for $18.6 billion. The Shin Kori 5 and 6, whose construction was suspended by President Moon Jae-in, was built on the same design. In 2014, the country came up with a more advanced exportable APR+ large model.

The state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) is developing a fourth-generation nuclear technology dubbed Innovative Power (IPower or premier power reactor.) The system focuses on multiple tiers of protection after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. The coolant tank goes atop the reactor to prevent any meltdown or leak should a tsunami or earthquake disrupt or ruin the coolant pumps. Gravity brings the coolant fluid into the reactor even when power is cut off. It takes just half the period to build a reactor with the new design compared with the most advanced APR+, helping dramatically to reduce costs.

South Korea has made impressive headway in nuclear fusion technology to produce the cleanest and limitless energy. Heat from nuclear fission is passed onto fluids to generate steam in existing nuclear reactors. Nuclear fusion is a process where hydrogen atoms are forced into one helium atom to give off tremendous heat. The ignition from the binding force has huge potential to provide safe, waste- and emission-free, near-limitless energy. The materials are the same, but the mechanism in releasing energy is the opposite. Nuclear fission and fusion are of the same nuclear reaction family. Fusion power is also dubbed solar energy as the reaction is the same as the way sun releases light and heat. Like the sun, it can emit unfathomable amounts of energy. It does not use radioactive uranium for fuel, but the lithium content of seawater. A single gram of fusion power can generate the same energy produced by 8 tons of petroleum.

South Korea, the U.S., Japan, the European Union, China, Russia and India are involved in the $20 billion fusion reactor dubbed the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Cadarache, France. South Korea has separately been developing the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced (K-STAR) project with an aim of readying a fusion power plant by 2040.

Korea is nearing mastering fusion power because it obtained indigenous technology from nuclear reactors. Just as it is close to reaching the peak of nuclear technology through fusion, the government has announced it is weaning the country off nuclear power and going entirely nuclear-free. All of this country’s valuable nuclear engineers will suddenly be out of work and their talents will be wasted. They can take their brainpower and technology overseas — specifically to China, which sees nuclear power for the safe energy source that it is. It is a pity to see the fate of our priceless nuclear reactor technology built over decades at the mercy of a three-month deliberation by non-experts. A government has to look to the future. And the future of the world lies in nuclear power.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 20, Page B9

*The author is a deputy managing editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Jung Kyung-min