Tag Archives: South Korea nuclear energy

From Nuclear Powerhouse to Nuclear Mafia: South Korea

South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, eventually became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of the country’s total electricity generation…. South Korea’s reactors…are mostly packed into a narrow strip along the densely populated southeastern coast. The density was a way of cutting costs on administration and land acquisition. But putting reactors close to one another—and to large cities—was risky. … 

In December 2009, the UAE had awarded a coalition led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) a $20 billion bid to build the first nuclear power plant in the UAE. Barakah was chosen as the site to build four APR-1400nuclear reactors successively.  In 2012 to Park Geunhye the newly elected president pledged to increase South Korea’s reactor fleet to 39 units by 2035 and making sales trips to potential client states such as the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia bulding on prior success like the UAE deal mentioned above. …


Barakah under construction in UAE

But on September 21, 2012, officials at Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), a subsidiary of the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO),  received an outside tip about illegal activity among the company’s parts suppliers. Eventually, an internal probe had become a full-blown criminal investigation. Prosecutors discovered that thousands of counterfeit parts had made their way into nuclear reactors across the South Korea, backed up with forged safety documents. KHNP insisted the reactors were still safe, but the question remained: was corner-cutting the real reason they were so cheap?

Park Jong-woon, a former manager who worked on reactors at KEPCO and KHNP until the early 2000s, believed so. He had seen that taking shortcuts was precisely how South Korea’s headline reactor, the APR1400, had been built…After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, most reactor builders had tacked on a slew of new safety features.KHNP followed suit but later realized that the astronomical cost of these features would make the APR1400 much too expensive to attract foreign clients.“They eventually removed most of them,” says Park, who now teaches nuclear engineering at Dongguk University. “Only about 10% to 20% of the original safety additions were kept.”  Most significant was the decision to abandon adding an extra wall in the reactor containment building—a feature designed to increase protection against radiation in the event of an accident. “They packaged the APR1400 as ‘new’ and safer, but the so-called optimization was essentially a regression to older standards,” says Park. “Because there were so few design changes compared to previous models, [KHNP] was able to build so many of them so quickly.”

Having shed most of the costly additional safety features, KEPCO was able to dramatically undercut its competition in the UAE bid, a strategy that hadn’t gone unnoticed. After losing Barakah to KEPCO, Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon likened the Korean nuclear plant to a car without airbags and seat belts. At the time Lauvergeon’s comments were dismissed as sour words from a struggling rival.

By the time it was completed in 2014, the KHNP inquiry had escalated into a far-reaching investigation of graft, collusion, and warranty forgery; in total, 68 people were sentenced and the courts dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time. Guilty parties included KHNP president Kim Jong-shin, a Kepco lifer, and President Lee Myung-bak’s close aide Park Young-joon, whom Kim had bribed in exchange for “favorable treatment” from the government.

Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. “It’s still creating a problem to this day,” Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told me. “They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.”

Excerpts from Max S. Kim,  How greed and corruption blew up South Korea’s nuclear industry, MIT Technology Review, April 22, 2019

The Other Nuclear Korea

The building of two South Korean nuclear reactors stopped suddenly in July 2017, after Moon Jae-in, the country’s left-leaning anti-nuclear president, ordered a pause to the project to give a citizen-jury time to consider its merits. …On October 20, 2017, after the jury endorsed the construction of the two reactors, Shin Kori 5 and 6….Mr Moon had pledged to scrap before he was elected in May. In June, however, he said he wanted to “generate a social consensus” by delegating the final decision to a 471-strong jury picked by a polling company. Its members were given a month to study materials prepared by scientists and activists before debating the project for three days. In the final vote, 60% backed the new reactors, although more than half of them said South Korea should reduce its overall reliance on nuclear energy. Only 10% said the nuclear industry should grow…

Anti-nuclear campaigners have voiced louder concerns since the Fukushima disaster in neighbouring Japan in 2011 and a 5.8 magnitude earthquake last year in the southern city of Gyeongju, close to some of South Korea’s 24 reactors. A corruption scandal in the industry and the revelation in 2012 that some safety certificates for reactor parts were forged amplified their doubts.

But the jury was probably swayed by economic arguments. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, the state-run company in charge of the Shin Kori project, claimed it had already spent 1.6trn won ($1.4bn) on the reactors, which were 30% complete. South Korea is the world’s second biggest importer of liquefied natural gas and its fourth largest importer of coal. Hydroelectric and renewable energy provides only 6% of its electricity. So nuclear, which accounts for 27% of its electricity supply, helps to guard against volatile import prices, says Kerry-Anne Shanks of Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. “Nuclear plants are expensive to build but they’re cheap to run,” she says. The industry also argued that axing the reactors would threaten deals to export nuclear technology…[Owning of nuclear technology makes South Korea a Threshold Nuclear Weapons State.]

Excerpts from Energy in South Korea: People Power, Economist, Oct.28, 2017

Nuclear Power in South Korea

South Korea, one of the world’s largest nuclear electricity producers, will scrap plans to add nuclear power plants, its president said on June 19, 2017, signaling a shift in decades of reliance on nuclear energy.  President Moon Jae-in said South Korea will move away from nuclear energy and will not seek to extend the life of existing plants.  He also vowed to cut South Korea’s reliance on coal. South Korea will shut 10 old coal power plants and stop building more coal power plants.

“So far South Korea’s energy policy pursued cheap prices and efficiency. Cheap production prices were considered the priority while the public’s life and safety took a backseat,” Moon said at a ceremony marking the shutdown of the country’s oldest power plant, Kori 1, in Busan, home to South Korea’s largest cluster of nuclear power plants. “But it’s time for a change.”

The speech was Moon’s followup on his presidential campaigns to cut coal and nuclear power. Greenpeace and other environmental groups welcomed Moon’s announcement.

Since the Kori 1 reactor went online in 1978, the resource poor-country added 24 nuclear power plants to meet rising demand for electricity from rapid industrialization and economic development. In 2016, a third of electricity in South Korea was produced from nuclear power plants. Its nuclear power production from 25 nuclear plants in 2016 was the fifth-largest in the world, according to the World Nuclear Association.

South Korea is also one of the few countries that have exported its nuclear reactor technology… building a nuclear reactor in United Arab Emirates.

But South Koreans’ enthusiasm for nuclear energy quickly waned following the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns in its neighbor Japan. In the following year, fake parts scandals prompted an investigation and spread fear over nuclear plants’ safety. Recent earthquakes in southeastern South Korea also dented public support in the country that was long believed to be safe from earthquakes. South Korea is also searching for answers on how and where to store spent nuclear fuels permanently.

To decommission the Kori 1 reactor, South Korea plans to invest developing its own decommissioning technology and experts in the area. The decommissioning will take at least 15 years and cost 643.7 billion won ($569 million or 64 billion yen), the energy ministry said.

Thyroid Cancer + Nuclear Plants: Korea

South Korea:  After a medical checkup, Hwang, 67, a resident of Gyeongju, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to have immediate surgery to remove the tumor. Several other people from her village, which is the closest human settlement to the Wolseong nuclear power plant, were also diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  Hwang is among an increasing number of South Koreans who live near the country’s four nuclear power plants and are joining civil suits against the operator of the plants, demanding compensation for cancer and other adverse health effects.

The citizen’s legal actions were prompted by a landmark ruling by the Busan[where the Kori Nuclear Plant is located]  district court October 2014, which ordered Korea Electric Power Corp., the government-owned operator of the nuclear plants, to pay 15 million won (1.68 million yen, or $13,500) in damages to a thyroid cancer patient. The number of plaintiffs seeking compensation from KEPCO for health damages incurred by radioactive emissions from the plants has now swelled to more than 2,500.   In demanding compensation from KEPCO, she argues that radioactive emissions from the Wolseong nuclear power plant in Gyeongju, with its five reactors, have caused her thyroid cancer.

Lawyer Kim Yeong-hui, who has encouraged residents living near nuclear plants to join the litigation, said that epidemiological surveys in South Korea have shown that residents living 5 to 30 km from nuclear power plants have 1.8 times a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than people from other areas.

Excerpt from  AKIRA NAKANO, More residents joining lawsuits seeking damages from South Korean nuclear plants, Asahi Shimbum, July 15, 2015

Hacking Nuclear Plants – South Korea

Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co Ltd said it would beef up cybersecurity by hiring more IT security experts and forming an oversight committee, as it came in for fresh criticism from lawmakers following recent hacks against its headquarters.  The nuclear operator, part of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp, said earlier this month that non-critical data had been stolen from its systems, while a hacker threatened in Twitter messages to close three reactors.

The control systems of the two complexes housing those reactors had not been exposed to any malignant virus, Seoul’s energy ministry and nuclear watchdog said in a joint statement, adding the systems were inaccessible from external networks.  Energy Minister Yoon Sang-jick told a parliamentary session that evidence of the presence and removal of a “worm” — which the ministry said was probably inadvertently introduced by workers using unauthorized USB devices — was unrelated to the recent hacking incidents, drawing scepticism from some lawmakers.  “I doubt control systems are perfectly safe as said,” Lee Jung-hyun, a lawmaker in the ruling Saenuri party, told the committee hearing.

Worries about nuclear safety in South Korea, which relies on nuclear reactors for a third of its power and is the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power user, have mounted since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan and a domestic scandal in 2012 over the supply of reactor parts with fake security certificates…Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power President and CEO Cho Seok told the hearing that all control systems of the country’s 23 nuclear reactors were safe against malignant codes. Recently, he said that cyberattacks on non-critical operations at the company’s headquarters were continuing, although he did not elaborate for security reasons.

Excerpt from South Korea nuclear operator finds computer ‘worm’ in control system, Reuters, Jan, 1, 2015

Nuclear Waste in South Korea: the Gyeongju facility

South Korea’s first facility dedicated solely to storing radioactive waste will soon go into full operation, the facility’s state-run operators said in July 2014…The 1.56 trillion won (US$1.53 billion) facility in Gyeongju, 370 kilometers south of Seoul, was completed at the end of June 2014 seven years after construction began in 2007, according to the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD)…The facility was completed more than 19 years after the government launched the project to build the country’s first-ever nuclear repository.

The government originally sought to build a nuclear repository for both high- and low-level radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel, in the coastal city of Buan, 280 kilometers southwest of Seoul. The plan was scrapped in 2004 after weeks of violent protests in the city that left hundreds of people injured.  The facility was changed as a storage unit for only low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, such as gloves, goggles and other equipment exposed to radiation at nuclear power plants.

Gyeongju volunteered to host the facility, but only after the government agreed to keep high-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, out of the city…Currently, the Gyeongju facility consists of six underground silos that can hold up to 100,000 barrels of radioactive waste and an examination facility that holds about 4,500 barrels of such waste waiting to be moved to the silos.

Already, South Korea has about 100,000 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the past 36 years, since the country began commercial operations at its first nuclear reactor in 1978, according to KORAD.  The country operates 23 nuclear reactors, generating about 30 percent of its total electricity supplies and 2,300 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste each year.

A second-phase construction program is already underway to add an additional 125,000-barrel holding unit to the Gyeongju facility, which is designed to take in 800,000 barrels of nuclear waste over the next 60 years before it is completely sealed off.  A KORAD official said it takes about 300 years for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste to be neutralized.

South Korea is now beginning to discuss how it will manage spent nuclear fuel, but many say that determining where the high-level nuclear waste will be stored is the most crucial task.

Excerpts from S. Korea completes construction of first nuclear waste repository,Yonhap News Agency, July 12, 2014

Fradulent Quality Certificates for Nuclear Reactors: South Korea

South Korea’s ambitious nuclear energy program is under intensive scrutiny and criticism after the discovery of microscopic cracks in the structure of a nuclear power plant and forgery of quality certificates vouching for thousands of components in at least two reactors.  Officials in all three major agencies responsible for monitoring the program said Friday there’s no danger to nuclear safety, but the government ordered the shutdown of the two reactors with the uncertified parts. At the same time, the head of the state company overseeing the program, Korea Electric Power Corp. has resigned for what he said were personal reasons.

A sequence of problems at a nuclear power plant on the southwestern coast fueled rising doubts about a program that’s been a centerpiece of the government’s energy policy since the first reactors went on line more than 30 years ago. Korea counts on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its electrical power, but critics are now demanding the government shut down some of the older plants and pull back from plans to build enough reactors to fulfill half the country’s power needs.  “I am worried about safety standards,” says Lee Chang-choon, who served as South Korea’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency during his long diplomatic career. “I do not have confidence and trust in the care of sensitive machinery operations.”

The trouble seemed to begin at the nuclear power plant at Yeonggwang where inspectors this week reported thousands of  “noncore components” were installed on the basis of fraudulent quality certificates. The Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation, which operates Korea’s four nuclear power plants, including 23 reactors, promised to replace all the parts by the end of the year while asking prosecutors to investigate alleged bribery.

Compounding the difficulties at the Yeonggwang plant, the ministry also reported the discovery of microscopic cracks in passages linking control rods to one of the reactors. An official at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation said the cracks affected warning signals on control panels but not operation of the reactors…

The underlying problem, however, is that South Korea has virtually no oil or natural gas deposits and is running out of coal. Nuclear power has long been seen as the only way to meet the demands of a growing industrial economy. Hong Suk-woon, Korea’s knowledge and economy minister, warned of severe power cuts that might affect industry and individual consumers as a result of shutdown of the two Yeonggwang reactors….

Others are still more critical. Yun Sun-jin, a professor who teaches courses on energy policy at Seoul National University, accuses the Korea Hydro Nuclear Power Corporation of placing higher priority on output with reduced emphasis on safety.  “They are decreasing the time for periodic overhaul of reactors,” she says. “They think a high operation rate means a more competitive strategy.”  She agrees with the view of the nongovernmental Korea Federation for the Environment that the government should shut down older plants and cancel plans to build new ones.  “We cannot believe nuclear power plants are safe,” says Yang-yi Won-young, in charge of the organization’s “nuclear phase-out” campaign. “The government says nuclear energy is the cheapest and cleanest, but they don’t take account of the cost of getting rid of nuclear waste.”…An official at the ministry of knowledge and economy listed 60 forged quality certificates since 2003 including more than 7,600 components, 98.4 percent of which, he says, were for the Yeonggwang plant. “These are noncore parts,” he says, including fuses, switches, and resistors that cannot be used for the core safety-related facility” and therefore “posing no threat of radiation leakage.”  The government, he adds, “will prepare and implement a comprehensive package of measures as soon as possible starting later this month to cope with the possible power shortages during this winte

Excerpts, By Donald Kirk, Cracks at South Korean nuclear plant raise safety concerns, Reuters, Nov. 9, 2012