▲ Regional distribution of nuclear power plants. Information provided by IAEA Power Reactor Information System. Made by Dahae
After the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, which was followed by the Fukushima nuclear incident where nuclear fuel rods were exposed to the open air in Japan, the voices of dissent toward nuclear power plants has grown significantly. In Germany, the anti-nuclear movement flamed, and resulted in the shutdowns of seven power plants. This antagonism also spread to Korea. On April 28, citizens of Samchuk City, along with an anti-nuclear organization, held a rally against the plan to build a new nuclear power plant in their city and the government’s nuclear promoting policy.
Though there is great concern over the safety of nuclear energy, the eagerness of nuclear power plants seems not to be decreasing all around the world. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 69 nuclear power reactors are now under construction from Far East countries to Latin and Northern American countries. Furthermore, 12 countries from the European Union (EU), including the United Kingdom (UK), France, and Spain, announced a statement which stipulated their agreement on the role of nuclear energy as the EU’s future low carbon energy mix and their will of continuing the dialogue on nuclear energy in the next year’s following meeting.
Korea is not an exception in this movement. Having 23 reactors within four power plants and depending on them for 29.8 percent of the country’s electricity, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Corporation (KHNC) has a plan to add five more reactors. When the five reactors are completed, gross electrical capacity by nuclear energy would be increased 130 percent from current capacity. Also, President Park Geun-hye designated the nuclear power plant exporting project as one of 140 government’s key businesses which finally exported an instrument and control devices to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Organization (ITER Organization).
So now, here is the question—why do so many countries show a great will of maintaining and expanding nuclear energy despite of the massive opposition? One of the very remarkable advantages is its economic feasibility and reliability. Generating the same amount of energy as nine drums of petroleum, three tons of coal with a gram of Uranium-235, a nuclear power plant has the lowest unit cost of production. In the case of Korea, the production price of a nuclear power plant, including the cost of processing used nuclear fuel and dissolution of the power plant, is 39.2 won per kilowatt-hour, which is only 58 percent of the cost of a coal plant, which is 67.2 won per kilowatt-hour.
Nuclear energy received its attention also due to their suitability for low carbon generating energy. Having a notion about the danger of global warming, the international society demands that each country cuts back their carbon emission. Accounting for 26 percent of carbon emission according to the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the energy supply sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gas over transportation, agriculture and industries. IPCC also states that nuclear energy generates 16 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, whereas coal energy generates 1001 grams. Based on these results, nuclear energy holds a limelight as a future energy source.
▲ An anti-nuclear protest in Seoul, demanding trustworthy nuclear safety policy. Provided by phys.org
Furthermore, especially in Korea, atomic energy has its advantage in regards to energy independence. Experiencing past two oil shocks and being third place among oil importing countries, the importance of energy independence apart from fossil energy has been emphasized in Korea. Since uranium evenly lies under all over the world, the cost of nuclear energy is not highly influenced by some Middle East oil rich country. Therefore, a share of nuclear power has been increased as a non-petroleum power supply policy and now Korea is the sixth biggest nuclear power supply country.
Despite of its advantages, nuclear power is not welcomed by all people and has been facing a major anti-movement because of doubt on its safety. The biggest problem of nuclear energy is the processing of the radioactive substance generated during the usage of nuclear fuel. “Nuclear power plants use the heat emitted during the fission of radioactive isotopes. An atomic nucleus generated by nuclear fission is, however, unstable at first but after an extremely long time enters a stable mode,” Professor Hong Byung-sik (Department of Physics) explains, “thereby, caution is needed during the generation process and nuclear waste must be completely isolated and stored until they earn stability.”
Clumsiness in the management of a power plant is one of the main issues that Korea government must tackle. “The most important thing in maintaining the safety of nuclear plants is the caution of the system operator,” said Hong. “Reactors are commonly safe generating equipments. A carelessness of an operator, however, can cause a huge catastrophe as the accident of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, United States (U.S.) in 1979 and the accident of Chernobyl, Soviet Union in 1986, which were both caused by the mistake of an operator causing massive loss of coolant.”
Yet in Korea, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) announced a statement related to the government’s failure in managing power plant components in December 31, 2012. Overall 6,494 components were installed to the power plant with a counterfeit quality assurance document and resulted in the temporary shutdown of two reactors to change those parts to the certificated components. The same issue happened this May again and still the investigation is ongoing.
To deal with these worries and possible problems, the international society, including Korea, has been creating safety plans. Stress Test is one of them. It is a holistic durability test that looks at how much a power plant can endure in an extreme situation like a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a sudden loss of electricity. By providing all the information and process of Stress Test via an internet website, the government also tries to promote its transparency.
Technologies for safer nuclear power plants are also being studied. Currently, countries like the U.S. are developing a Generation-IV reactor (GEN-IV) which has much greater stability and economic feasibility than today’s Generation-Ⅲreactors. GEN-IV is expected to decrease the amount of nuclear waste by recycling nuclear waste as nuclear fuel. Also, development of an Accelerator-driven System (ADS) is active. ADS changes long-lived isotopes into short-lived isotopes; therefore it fastens, simplifies and economizes the stabilizing process of nuclear waste.
▲ Shin-Gori nuclear power plant. Provided by iter.org