South Korea has evolved from being one of the world's poorest nations six decades ago to becoming the 15th largest economy on a nominal GDP basis, the world's sixth largest exporter and tenth largest importer as of 2010. South Korean industry is well established and its brands such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai have become global household names.
But in addition, South Korea has decided to nurture growth in nuclear power generation, with the ultimate goal of exporting South Korean nuclear reactors to meet the world's pressing demand for energy. This effort has led to several commercial successes, the most significant of which was the award of a $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) project to construct four nuclear power plant units in the UAE in 2009 to a consortium led by the South Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco).
Before any re-thinking caused by the Japanese tsunami hitting the Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011, there was a global requirement for the construction of over 400 new nuclear power plants by 2030. Only five countries have ever exported a nuclear power plant, and South Korea wanted to claim a bigger piece of this work. At present, South Korean companies are involved in the construction of seven domestic nuclear power plants and four units overseas, which has attracted the attention of the global community.
Time will tell what the long-term effects of the tsunami will have on the future of the nuclear power industry, but the energy needs of the world's developing and developed countries will not go away.
Although South Korea only recently exported its first nuclear power plant, one should not assume that the country is new to the nuclear game. A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1957, domestic operation of nuclear power plants goes back to 1978 when South Korea's first plant — Kori 1 — came online.
As of today, a total of 21 nuclear power plants have been built around the country, the sum of which provide South Korea with 18,716MW of power, accounting for nearly 23.9 per cent of its total energy capacity and 31 per cent of total electricity consumption.
The South Korean government expects this number to increase to 60 per cent by 2035, with the additional nuclear reactors currently under construction and 10 more in the pipeline.
Following the start of commercial operations at Kori 1, eight more reactors were under construction by the early 1980s. South Korea's early pressurised water reactors (PWRs) were based on Westinghouse, AECL and Framatome technology while later, the country succeeded in seeing its South Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant (KSNP) become a recognised design.
South Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear energy, and development of nuclear industry skills, was unique. Nuclear energy production in the United States and Europe was hit by two deadly accidents — the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
The 1979 meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island power plant led to a decline in the number of reactors under construction in the United States every year from 1980 to 1998; and the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, after which all new nuclear power plant projects in Europe and the United States were shelved.
By 2005 in South Korea, however, a total of 20 nuclear power plants had come online and the nation had no notion of stopping there. By 2009, the capacity factor for South Korean reactors stood at 91 per cent, the world's highest, a level at which they remain today. At the time, the global average was a mere 76 per cent. Further evidence of the capability of the South Korean nuclear power machine was the country's three-year average unplanned capability loss of 0.6 for the years 2007-2009. As of end-2009, the global average was 5.4 per cent according to the IAEA.
Construction of the first two of South Korea's home-grown Generation III APR1400 reactors — Shin Kori 3 and 4 — was authorised the following year, with the first concrete on Unit 3 being poured in October 2008. It is the APR1400 which was selected by the UAE to serve as the basis of the Emirates' budding nuclear energy programme. When completed in 2013 and 2014, respectively, Shin Kori Units 3 and 4 will serve as the reference plant for the reactors under construction in the UAE. The Shin Ulchin 1 & 2 reactors, authorized by the government for construction in April 2009, are expected to be completed by 2016.
The APR1400 currently being marketed for export by Kepco has had added to its design significant enhancements in regard to safety as well as increased power capabilities. Based on the predecessor OPR1000 and South Korea's experience gained over the country's continuous development of nuclear reactors, the upgraded APR1400 was designed to utilise the proven technology of the earlier model while offering more in terms of safety, performance, construction period, operation and of course, economics.
By adopting advanced design features based on self-reliant technologies as well as on the technologies of the System 80+, the design of which was certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, South Korea developed the APR1400 to meet the South Korean Utility Requirement Document (KURD) reflecting the advanced light water reactor (ALWR) design requirements developed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and other nuclear power related bodies.
The lifespan of the APR1400 reactor was also increased to 60 years, 20 years more than its predecessor OPR1000, a reactor which was developed as an integral part of South Korea's nuclear power plant standardisation programme begun in 1984. Ulchin Unit 3 was the first OPR1000 to go into operation in 1998; three years after South Korean nuclear power plants had reached a level of 95 per cent indigenous technology.
The efforts made over three decades to develop South Korea's domestic nuclear power industry have culminated in two international projects to date. The first was the KEDO project in North South Korea while the second was Kepco being awarded the project to build four nuclear power plant units in the UAE in December 2009.
The origins of the KEDO project can be traced back to a 1994 agreement between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of South Korea (DPRK) under which the DPRK agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear programme, the US agreed to finance and construct two light-water reactors of the South Korean Standard Nuclear Power Plant model.
Although racked with issues and disputes which ultimately led to the project being abandoned, the decade-long project offered Kepco valuable experience in the process of seeing a nuclear power plant project through, including how to negotiate with energy powerhouses such as the US and Japan.
In regard to the winning UAE bid, one of the most important aspects of the UAE requirements was to verify that the APR1400 reactor represented third-generation nuclear technology. The Kepco team verified that the APR1400 met the international technology standards of the United States, and had obtained design certification from the South Korean nuclear watchdog in 2002. The differentiation report emphasised that the Kepco team could deliver the power plant on time with Kepco as the prime contractor and that the South Korean government would provide full support to build a Middle East nuclear hub in the UAE.
The UAE project made South Korea only the fifth nation to export a nuclear power plant, following the United States, France, Russia and Canada.
Although the accident at Fukushima will put a damper on certain countries' nuclear ambitions, predictions by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) prior to the accident expected hundreds of additional nuclear power plant units to be in operation by 2030, above and beyond the 441 currently in operation in 30 countries around the world.
To this end, Kepco and organisations in South Korea affiliated with the nuclear industry provide a variety of educational programs for both domestic and international personnel. Such training is part of Kepco's drive to provide training in areas which cover the entire operation of a nuclear power plant. From instruction related to the pre-project stage through to construction, commissioning and operations and maintenance, Kepco and nuclear power-affiliated organisations in South Korea offer a full range of education.
The South Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), the South Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS), Kepco subsidiary KHNP and the South Korea Plant Service and Engineering Co. offer courses throughout the year on topics ranging from global trends and policies, reactor technology and accident management to quality assurance, public acceptance and project financing. Other courses cover more technical aspects of a nuclear power plant, among which include atomic energy laws and regulations, project management and start-up tests during the commissioning phase.
In addition to academic offerings, site visits are arranged to South Korea's power plants and related facilities and companies.
In August 2009, a vote was taken among the leaders of relevant nuclear power organisations in South Korea to establish a nuclear power graduate school which would be designated as the Kepco International Nuclear Graduate School or Kepco-INGS.
Currently under construction on a site located within the Kori nuclear power plant the facility, when completed, will have a total area of about 18,000 square metres. The school plans to open in March 2012.
The impetus to establish such a facility was the winning bid to build a nuclear power plant in the UAE and the subsequent need to foster engineers equipped with the right skills and training experience necessary in the industry.
The school will admit 200 students (100 for each class, half of which will be South Korean and the other half from overseas) and provide a two-year curriculum with all full-time classes taught in English and focused on industry-specific knowledge and skills. The school is expected to produce leaders in the atomic energy field through its nuclear Master's Engineer course and technology doctorate curriculum.
As the events following the Fukushima accident continue to unfold, the long-term effects on the health and global perceptions of the nuclear power industry remain to be seen.
Despite the setback, however, the accident has served as a reminder of the importance of guaranteeing safety of both existing nuclear power plants and those yet to be built, and that changes must continue to be made to ensure that nuclear energy will remain a vital part of the global power grid.
The strides taken by South Korea and Kepco over the past 33 years since the country's first nuclear power plant went operational to develop technology which allows the safe and reliable production and distribution of nuclear power have no reason to cease.
A crisis provides a meaningful opportunity to re-evaluate existing systems and levels of preparedness and make changes if deemed necessary, which is exactly what South Korea and Kepco have done in recent months.
South Korea's nuclear technology, as proven by high levels of performance year after year and the successful export of the country's technologically advanced APR1400 reactors to the UAE, is based on more than three decades of continuous development by a cohesive team called "One Kepco."
In short, South Korean nuclear power plant technology is proven technology. In this light, Kepco is actively seeking additional opportunities to share its nuclear technology with countries in need of a reliable, economically feasible and safe energy option as a lifelong partner from the development of nuclear policies and regulations, feasibility studies, public consultations and technology evaluation, to financing, design, construction, commissioning, operations, maintenance, fuel and decommissioning.
Hee-Yong Lee is a Senior Vice-President at South Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) and is the manager responsible for the construction of the nuclear power facility in Abu Dhabi.
- 400: more nuclear plants required to meet global energy demand by 2030
- 30: countries have nuclear plants
- 441: nuclear plants currently
- 4: nuclear reactors to be built in the UAE by South Korean firm