Features | Environment | East Asia

Can Nuclear Energy Power South Korea’s Future?

President Yoon wants nuclear energy to catapult South Korea to carbon neutrality and international prestige. But a rough road lies ahead.

Can Nuclear Energy Power South Korea’s Future?
Credit: Korea Shin-Kori Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear energy has a checkered history in South Korea. Along with gender parity, housing solutions, and COVID-19 relief, support for nuclear power plants has defined political fault lines. While over 70 percent of conservatives favor expansion of nuclear energy, almost 70 percent of progressives do not. In fact, one popular survey uses responders’ stance on a nuclear question as one of the barometers for determining their political and ideological affiliations.

Conservatives regard nuclear energy as showcasing the nation’s technological prowess, pointing to boosted exports and a quicker path to carbon neutrality. Former President Lee Myung-bak touted Korean nuclear technology as “our future breadwinner” and secured a deal in 2009 to deploy four reactors to the United Arab Emirates. Back then, his ambition was to pave the way for exporting 80 nuclear reactors abroad by 2030.

Progressives, on the other hand, have laid their eyes on the seamier sides of nuclear power. Poor environmental records, safety fraud, and racketeering have long plagued South Korea’s nuclear industry. Former President Moon Jae-in, a liberal elected in 2017, launched his signature nuclear phase-out policy.

Shortly after his induction, Moon put a moratorium on the ongoing expansion of Kori, the country’s largest nuclear complex, only to accede later to a decision by a civil jury to revive the construction of two more plants. Still, he scrapped the scheduled addition of two reactors at Hanul, the country’s second largest nuclear plant. Under his administration, Kori 1 went into belated retirement after 40 years of operation, and Wolseong 1 met a premature closure. During the five years of Moon’s presidency, the proportion of electricity derived from nuclear energy dropped from almost 30 percent to 26.5 percent. If that trajectory continued, the figure was expected to crater to 6 percent by 2050.

But now, the nuclear sector is experiencing a surge of optimism as President Yoon Suk Yeol, Moon’s successor as of May, pledged to turn the country into a “nuclear reactor superpower.” Yoon’s energy proposal plans for the expansion of Shin Hanul and extension of the operating life of 18 nuclear power plants. Should everything go as planned, nuclear power would cover up to 35 percent of South Korea’s energy consumption by 2030. The incremental transition to nuclear energy, Yoon expects, would alleviate South Korea’s dependence on fossil fuels for almost two-thirds of its energy consumption. Besides its role in helping achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, his energy policy is further driven by volatile oil prices, disruption of natural gas supplies, and the concomitant need for energy independence.

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Yoon is keeping tabs on foreign markets, too. The Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy (MOTIE) will soon initiate a “Project for Building Nuclear Export Foundation,” which includes funding nuclear energy conferences and exhibitions as well as facilitating export processes. Narrowing its focus, the ministry also plans to set up a state-civilian “prep task force” for country-specific packages that would help clinch foreign contracts.

In late May, U.S. President Joe Biden and Yoon affirmed their commitment to “greater nuclear energy collaboration and accelerating the development and global deployment of advanced reactors and small modular reactors by jointly using export promotion and capacity building tools.” Nuclear technology constitutes an important part of Yoon’s desire for South Korea to become a “global pivotal state” based on a stronger stance against regional rivals. Specifically, Yoon enrolled in the U.S.-led Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology program and the Indo-Pacific Framework for Prosperity, designed to better secure supply chains among allies. They are largely meant to contain and compete against China, Russia, and North Korea, all of whom have vested interests in nuclear technology.

South Korea’s nuclear industry welcomed the recent development as “a renaissance” for the struggling sector. As Europe copes with energy scarcity due to the Russo-Ukrainian war and looks for alternatives to Russian gas, nuclear experts expect South Korea-U.S. collaboration to give Korea a regional foothold. The head of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power visited Finland in mid-June to convince the Nordic country to adopt South Korean reactors as the latter strives to wean itself off Russian energy and raise nuclear power from 34 percent to 60 percent of its total energy output. The Yoon administration also hopes to woo Saudi Arabia, which has been keeping its eyes open for foreign reactors. In the meantime, the UAE’s praise of the Korean-built Barakah power plants as “a crucial project that fostered the UAE into a major producer of clean energy” promotes South Korea’s nuclear stature.

Despite high hopes, a bumpy road lies ahead for Yoon and his favorite industry. Of immediate concern is finding sites to handle and dispose of spent fuel. Inside a nuclear reactor, uranium undergoes a fission process, the splitting energy of which transforms into electricity. A portion of the byproducts and the remaining uranium end up as high-level radioactive waste. This infernally hot and penetrating radiation requires sophisticated handling and shielding to prevent radioactive contamination.

MOTIE notes, however, that indigenous nuclear plants currently store their spent fuel in temporary on-site facilities due to repeated failures to find suitable locations for disposal. Starting from 2031, the reactors will reach their temporary storage capacity one by one. Even if the Yoon administration manages to convince any towns to host waste sites, there are more hurdles. Since the authorities are accustomed only to makeshift on-site handling, the ministry report continues, there is a pressing need to procure transportation, storage, and disposal techniques, and extra technicians.

Yet wherever government agencies propose to build a permanent waste disposal site, the attempts have failed either because of residents’ angry (and at times violent) resistance or environmental inspections. This way in the past, the government spent 19 years settling on a location for South Korea’s one and only disposal site near Gyeongju. Even this is a low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste facility; opposition to what the industry requires, a storage site for high-level radioactive waste, would be fiercer. MOTIE estimates that the installation and initial operation of a permanent high-level waste complex could take up to 37 years. Well before that, South Korea’s nuclear plants would already be neck-deep in on-site waste.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s small territory and high population density exacerbate not only the public perception but also the consequences of potential accidents. With the average east-west width of the country standing at approximately 300 km, any radioactive disasters technically would affect the entire population. Plus, due to its proximity to a juncture of four tectonic plates, South Korea sustains around 70 earthquakes on a yearly basis.

Geographic constraints and residents’ aversion to nuclear projects forced the government to concentrate its reactors into the southeastern corner of the peninsula. The region already exhibits the world’s highest concentration of nuclear plants per area, which makes it more susceptible to collective nuclear melting. Its two largest quakes in history have already rattled the region, but luckily neither was in the vicinity of the nuclear power plants.

In March, a wildfire blazed near Hanul’s switchyard, which controls electricity generation and transmission, paralyzing some power lines. A blackout disaster was averted only by dispatching most of the local fire trucks to the nuclear plants at the expense of wildlife and civilian residences. Nationally televised footage of the calamity hurt the nuclear energy sector’s public image. As wildfires and storms are likely to be more frequent due to climate change, and since most of the plants nestle in mountainous terrains along the eastern shoreline, some voice concerns that South Korea may become the next Fukushima.

During the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, a megaquake demolished power lines and the ensuing tsunami flooded backup generators. In the absence of electricity to cool all three reactors, the nuclear cores began to melt – to this day, it remains unclear just how bad the damage was. Just as the incident turned global opinion against nuclear energy at the time, South Korea’s worsening natural disasters could easily sway more people to oppose the government’s nuclear endeavors.

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Other problems arise from within. The industry is still riddled with lack of transparency, corruption, and racketeering, which raises the question of safety. For instance, Uljin, a coastal town in the eastern part of the peninsula and home to eight reactors, has experienced around a hundred accidents since 1988. Confronted by a local civilian observing body over spiking radiation, authorities used to belittle such phenomena as fallout from Chernobyl. In 2013, when a technician pinpointed a structural defect that halved the intended operating life of Hanul’s steam generators, the company in charge sued him for false accusations. The flaw persists today.

Domestic suppliers have forged safety certificates to install counterfeit or inferior components. Government officials are involved in racketeering as well. In exchange for cash, they often overlook or even allow suppliers to omit some parts still tallied up in the contracts. The fact that expensive independent performance tests are hardly carried out and that nobody would catch faults unless there are disasters has enabled such collusion.

Dr Lee Byeong-ryeong, a member of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission with almost 40 years of industrial experience, said that the root cause of the industry’s woes is “the nuclear mafia.” Formed around Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, and the highest authority, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, a small group of people apply lax regulations and monopolize nuclear research and policymaking.

From the “nuclear mafia” to waste disposal, Yoon has a lot to overcome if he wants to secure South Korea’s nuclear future.