Tag Archives: South Korea nuclear waste

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

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.

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

A Nuclear Superpower: South Korea

North Korea’s weapons program is not the only nuclear headache for South Korea. The country’s radioactive waste storage is filling up as its nuclear power industry burgeons, but what South Korea sees as its best solution — reprocessing the spent fuel so it can be used again — faces stiff opposition from its U.S. ally.  South Korea fired up its first reactor in 1978 and since then the resource-poor nation’s reliance on atomic energy has steadily grown. It is now the world’s fifth-largest nuclear energy producer, operating 23 reactors. But unlike the rapid growth of its nuclear industry, its nuclear waste management plan has been moving at a snail’s pace.

A commission will be launched before this summer to start public discussion on the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel rods, which must be locked away for tens of thousands of years. Temporary storage for used rods in spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants is more than 70 percent full.  Undeterred by the Fukushima nuclear disaster or recent local safety failings, South Korea plans to boost atomic power to 40 percent of its energy needs with the addition of 11 reactors by 2024.  South Korea also has big ambitions to export its nuclear knowhow, originally transferred from the U.S. under a 1973 treaty that governs how its East Asian ally uses nuclear technology and explicitly bars reprocessing. The treaty also prohibits enrichment of uranium, a process that uranium must undergo to become a viable nuclear fuel, so South Korea has to get countries such as the U.S. and France to do enrichment for it.

That treaty is at the heart of Seoul’s current dilemma. It wants reprocessing rights to reduce radioactive waste and the right to enrich uranium, which would reduce a hefty import bill and aid its reactor export business. The catch: The technologies that South Korea covets can also be used to develop nuclear weapons.  Accommodating Seoul’s agenda would run counter to the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and also potentially undermine its arguments against North Korea’s attempts to develop warheads and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. South Korea, with its history of dabbling in nuclear weapons development in the 1970s and in reprocessing in the early 1980s, might itself face renewed international suspicion.

“For the United States, this is a nonproliferation issue. For South Korea, this is the issue of high-level radioactive waste management and energy security,” said Song Myung Jae, chief executive officer of state-run Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corp. “For a small country like South Korea, reducing the quantity of waste even just a little is very important.”

Newly elected President Park Geun Hye made revision of the 38-year-old treaty one of her top election pledges in campaigning last year. The treaty expires in March 2014 and a new iteration has to be submitted to Congress before the summer. The two sides have not narrowed their differences on reprocessing and enrichment by much despite ongoing talks.  South Korea also argues that uranium enrichment rights will make it a more competitive exporter of nuclear reactors as the buyers of its reactors have to import enriched uranium separately while rivals such as France and Japan can provide it. It is already big business after a South Korean consortium in 2009 won a $20 billion contract to supply reactors to the United Arab Emirates. Former President Lee Myung Bak set a target of exporting one nuclear reactor a year, which would make South Korea one of the world’s biggest reactor exporters.

Doing South Korea a favor would be a huge exception for the U.S. Congress, which has never given such consent to non-nuclear weapon states that do not already have reprocessing or enrichment technology.  “It is not the case that we think Korea will divert the material. It’s not a question of trust or mistrust,” Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said on the sidelines of the Asian Nuclear Forum in Seoul last month. “It’s a question of global policies.”

Nuclear waste storage is highly contentious in densely populated South Korea, as no one welcomes a nuclear waste dump in their backyard. Temporary storage for spent nuclear fuel rods at South Korea’s nuclear plants was 71 percent full in June, with one site in Ulsan — the heartland of South Korea’s nuclear industry — set to hit full capacity in 2016.

To accommodate the 100,000 tons of nuclear waste that South Korea is expected to generate this century, it needs a disposal vault of 20 sq. km in rock caverns some 500 meters underground, according to a 2011 study by analyst Seongho Sheen published in the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis. “Finding such a space in South Korea, a country the size of the state of Virginia, and with a population of about 50 million, would be enormously difficult,” it said.

The country’s first permanent site to dump less-risky, low-level nuclear waste such as protective clothes and shoes worn by plant workers will be completed next year after the government pacified opposition from residents of Gyeongju city, South Korea’s ancient capital, with 300 billion won ($274 million) in cash, new jobs and other economic benefits for the World Heritage city. The 2.1 million sq. meter dump will eventually hold 800,000 drums of nuclear waste.  “Opponents were concerned that the nuclear dump would hurt the reputation of the ancient capital,” said Kim Ik Jung, a medical professor at the Dongguk University in Gyeongju.

To make its demands more palatable to the U.S., South Korea is emphasizing a fledgling technology called pyroprocessing that it hopes will douse concerns about proliferation because the fissile elements that are used in nuclear weapons remain mixed together rather than being separated.  South Korea’s Atomic Energy Research Institute said pyroprocessing technology could reduce waste by 95 percent compared with 20 to 50 percent from existing reprocessing technology.

The U.S. has agreed to conduct joint research with South Korea on managing spent nuclear fuel, including pyroprocessing, but some scientists say the focus on an emerging technology that may not be economically feasible is eclipsing the more urgent need to address permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel.  “Even under the most optimistic scenario, pyroprocessing and the associated fast reactors will not be available options for dealing with South Korea’s spent fuel on a large scale for several decades,” said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Miles Pomper and Stephanie Lieggi in a joint report for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monetary Institute of International Studies. “With or without pyroprocessing, South Korea will need additional storage capacity.”

But for South Korea, researching and developing the technology is a bet worth making.  “The U.S. does not need nuclear energy as desperately as South Korea,” said Sheen, a professor at Seoul National University.

YOUKYUNG LEE, Pact stifles South as nuke waste piles up, Japan Times, Mar. 27, 2013