How Greed Blew Up the Korean Nuclear Industry

April 27, 2019

During the research I did for the video above, detailing barriers to rapid buildout of nuclear energy – I kept hearing that the one place in the world where nuclear was being done right was South Korea.

Maybe not.

Longer article excerpted here – essential reading – sheds more light on the institutional and economic barriers to existing nuclear technology.

No matter where you fall on the nuke/nonuke spectrum, this is consequential information.

Money quote:

“South Korea was right on the cusp of taking over the world market.”
Not anymore. Less than a decade after Barakah broke ground, Korea is dismantling its nuclear industry, shutting down older reactors and scrapping plans for new ones.

MIT Technology Review:

Two years earlier, a South Korean consortium had won an $18.6 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors on the ground where Lee now stood—at the time, the single biggest reactor deal in history. The plant—named Barakah, after the Arabic word for a divine blessing—was a personal triumph for Lee, who had reportedly swung the deal with a desperate 11th-hour phone call to bin Zayed, and a victory for his country, whose Korea Electric Power Corporation, Kepco, had led the bid and won out against more experienced French competition. It made for a great underdog story. A small, resource poor nation that relied heavily on imported energy, South Korea had kick-started its nuclear program in the 1970s by buying reactors on turnkey contracts from Canada, France, and the United States. But Kepco and its nuclear affiliate, KHNP, quickly developed their own model based on an American design. The first homegrown reactor was operational by 1995, and more soon followed. Eventually South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of its total electricity generation. The Emiratis had been impressed.
More was at stake in the UAE than just South Korea’s national pride, however. What the country was doing could help solve the climate crisis. While renewable-energy production has grown dramatically, many scientists, engineers, and environmental activists believe a nuclear power system is the only truly scalable alternative to fossil fuels. Yet over the years the high capital costs, uncertain profits, and safety concerns associated with nuclear power have discouraged investors and led governments back to cheaper, dirtier fuel sources like coal and gas.
The French state-owned company Areva, for example, had a project in Finland that was already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. The US’s $6.8 billion Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor in Tennessee had taken 23 years to complete, and cost more than 18 times its original $370 million price tag. Areva had bid for the Barakah project, but its $36 billion proposal was reportedly almost twice as high as Kepco’s. The Korean bid rekindled the hope that nuclear could be clean, safe, and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels.

How did Kepco manage it? Lee Hee-yong, a former Kepco executive who had led the bid, told me the key was repetition—building to the same template over and over, rather than designing customized plants each time as was typical. This increased expertise and efficiency, and the result was lower prices. “Prior to the UAE deal, we had been continuously building reactors for the past 30 or 40 years,” he told me in the office of his two-person boutique energy consultancy in Seoul. “The fact that we maintained a strong supply chain and network of specialized workers was key to keeping costs low.”

The timing of the UAE deal was auspicious: France and Canada were stagnating as civil nuclear powers, says Howard Neilson-Sewell, a Canadian nuclear industry veteran and advisor to the Barakah project. “South Korea was right on the cusp of taking over the world market.”
Not anymore. Less than a decade after Barakah broke ground, Korea is dismantling its nuclear industry, shutting down older reactors and scrapping plans for new ones. State energy companies are being shifted toward renewables. Lee’s legacy has collapsed, and the hope that Seoul’s nuclear program could help combat climate change has dwindled to nothing.
So what went wrong? Critics blame politics, ideology, and environmental idealism. The reality: greed, corruption, and scandal. It’s a reminder that the grandest plans for fighting climate change can fall prey to simple human venality.
Disaster strikes
“Watching Fukushima was a tremendous shock, especially because I live next to a nuclear power plant myself,” Kim Ik-joong told me when we met earlier this year at a coffee shop close to the headquarters of one of Seoul’s most renowned civic-rights groups. Activists of various stripes were gathered around us, talking animatedly, and some came over to greet him: Kim, 59, is one of the country’s best-known antinuclear campaigners. Charismatic and well-spoken, he was originally a microbiology professor at Dongguk University but has become the face of the antinuclear movement as a prolific lecturer and pundit on the evening news.
Up until the Fukushima disaster, that movement had been limited to a scattered assortment of local groups. The crisis in Japan brought things closer to home. It “just didn’t feel like someone else’s business,” says Kim.
Kim himself grew particularly uneasy about the overcrowding of South Korea’s reactors, which 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.
“An accident at just one of these plants would be far more devastating than Fukushima,” says Kim. “These reactors are dangerously close to major industrial areas, and there are four million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the Kori plant alone.” Hyundai’s auto plant in Ulsan, a city of 1.2 million, is just 20 km from the nearest nuclear power plant. Fukushima, by comparison, had only around 78,000 people living within the same distance.
Kim’s cause found political support. In 2012, Moon Jae-in, who was running for president, personally recruited him to his energy policy team. Moon had recently announced a nuclear phase-out as a campaign pledge. Kim felt an affinity to Moon: both of their hometowns stood in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.
“He had done a lot of research on the issue himself, and already had very firm personal convictions about exiting nuclear,” Kim says with a smile. “Back then, there were still a lot of people in [Moon’s] Democratic Party who were against a nuclear-exit policy, so Moon made the announcement in Japan, away from anybody who would try to dissuade him.”
However, Moon lost the 2012 election to Park Geunhye, the conservative successor to Lee Myung-bak. (South Korean presidents can serve only a single term.) Park continued Lee’s nuclear expansion policy, pledging 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.
But rumors started swirling that the UAE deal had come with a number of compromising provisions. The most serious allegation was that Lee had secured the project by secretly promising armed support to Abu Dhabi in the event of a military conflict. In 2011, South Korea did begin deploying special forces to the UAE, but Lee denied any connection.
It was a sign that South Korea’s nuclear success might not just be a simple story of efficiency and expertise.

read more at Technology Review.


17 Responses to “How Greed Blew Up the Korean Nuclear Industry”

  1. jfon Says:

    The situation for the nuclear industry in South Korea is not totally bleak. President Moon Jae-In experienced some push back when he decreed that two partly-built reactors should be scrapped, so a randomly selected ‘jury’ was appointed to decide the matter. They voted 59.5 percent to continue construction, though two more reactors that were ready for first concrete to be poured were abandonned. Severe power shortages that summer, after another reactor was shut, requiring the restarting of several mothballed coal plants, may have affected the decision.
    Before Moon Jae-In’s election, a new film was released, depicting a fictional meltdown in Korea after an earthquake. The usual tropes of thronging refugees dying, and heroic plant workers sacrificing themselves to save the country. In reality, for acute radiation sickness, you’d need a thousand times the levels experienced round Fukushima. The most that could be expected there is maybe one or two percent higher rates of some cancers over the next twenty years, but it’s hard to make a good movie about that. Even that is debatable. Radiation releases around Chernobyl were far higher than at Fukushima, and the results, after forty years, have been a slightly higher leukemia rate in the workers actually fighting the fire, and about twenty fatalities from thyroid cancer. ( There were many more cases, but thyroid cancer is easily treated, and has ~95% survival rate.) The thyroid is affected because the body concentrates iodine into this very small gland, so the dose per cubic centimetre is much higher, and iodine 121 decays with an eight day half-life. This gives a rapid, strong blast of beta rays ( electrons ), which overwhelms the body’s DNA repair system. Avoid locally grown milk and leafy vegetables for two months, and take a prophylactic dose of non-radioactive iodine, and a measurable increase in thyroid cancer is very unlikely.
    Cesium 137, the other main radionuclide of concern, has a much longer half life, about thirty years. This means it’s around for longer, but also that the rate of emission is about 1500 times lower than for iodine, for the same number of atoms. Cesium also is spread all around the body, rather than concentrated in one place, which again reduces the damage rate that cell nuclei have to fix. Radiocesium is used to treat some cancers, with very high doses targeted at the tumour, and about half that amount hitting the healthy tissue just around it. Secondary cancers from that irradiation do occur, but usually the treatment does enough good to make that a risk worth taking. A cesium 137 source was stolen from a disused hospital theatre in Goiania, Brazil, broken open, and local children spent several days playing with the pretty glowing blue beads, before authorities were alerted. Several died, and others were sickened, by acute radiation, but thirty years later none of the survivors has contracted any cancers attributable to the episode.
    Illnesses due to the smoke from coal burning plants are much more readily identified. Korea has had some bad smog episodes lately, some from pollution blowing over from China, but their own coal plants make a lot of it too. Hopefully they will reconsider the far more certain benefits of their nuclear plants, compared to the scary headlines. Korea is effectively an electricity island, with no imports or exports. The Japanese island of Kyushu, just across the Korea Strait, also gets a percentage of its power from nuclear reactors, though some were not reopened after post-Fukushima shut downs. Kyushu has also had a large number of solar farms built since 2011, but the nuclear plants, though having a similar nameplate capacity, make far more power over the day, and especially over the year. Kyushu is the sunniest part of mainland Japan, but it still gets a winter.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      With Fukushima, it didn’t help that the early response was so haphazard, and that workers were reporting lower radiation readings because they had their sensors on the wrong setting. The solution to the groundwater flow problem was a head-scratcher, too, with a power-dependent ice dam to prevent up-head groundwater moving through the plant, rather than, say, a passive sheet dam with an extraction well, perhaps, up-head of that.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        IOW, humans were human, and made mistakes. That’s not a big problem in paperclip factories; not so benign when dealing with meltdownable quantities of radioactive material. It’s why there’s not an anti-paperclip movement.

  2. Neil Rieck Says:

    IIRC, Korea still runs six Canadian-made Candu reactors These are heavy-water designs that are designed to be impossible to melt down. Recall that light water reactors can never be shut down lower than 7% output “by control rods only”; to get lower they must be defueled. This is why the Fukushima disaster happened: they required emergency cooling but that subsystem was destroyed by the tsunami. To shut down a Candu, you only need to poison the heavy water. I’m not sure how they do it now, but early reactors simply employed a tank of light water which was positioned above the reactor. If the reactor ever got into trouble (including loss of power) the light water simply fell by gravity into the heavy water. Without heavy water there are no slow neutrons. Without slow neutrons there is no heat.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Some SCRAM procedures use light water solutions of boron compounds. As you say, easy enough to poison the reaction IF you plan ahead.

    • jfon Says:

      Heavy water reactors have fission product decay heat to deal with, the same as light water ones – in both cases, fission stops immediately, with or without power, but the ‘fission products’ – the smashed atoms – continue to break down and release energy for some time. As you say, at the start that’s only about 7% of full power, but 7% of a gigawatt is still a lot of heat. That falls away fairly quickly though. ‘Quantitatively, at the moment of reactor shutdown, decay heat from these radioactive sources is still 6.5% of the previous core power, if the reactor has had a long and steady power history. About 1 hour after shutdown, the decay heat will be about 1.5% of the previous core power. After a day, the decay heat falls to 0.4%, and after a week it will be only 0.2%.’
      Newer reactors have emergency cooling systems that can get rid of the decay heat safely even with no power. So did Fukushima, but after the earthquake, they were turning the system on and off, to cool down at an even pace. Unfortunately, when the tsunami hit, the Residual Heat Removal system was off, and anyway, it’s heat exchangers were smashed by the wave.
      Heavy water reactors use a number of narrow ‘pressure tubes’ with the hot fuel in them, surrounded by a much cooler tank of heavy water, at about 90 C and low pressure. That gives them a lot of thermal inertia, compared to a light water reactor, where the large pressure vessel is already at 310 C, and seventy atmospheres pressure, and the fuel itself is much hotter at the centre of the rods.

  3. rsmurf Says:

    Good for scrapping their nuke industry.

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    “…over the years the high capital costs, uncertain profits, and safety concerns associated with nuclear power have discouraged investors and led governments back to cheaper, dirtier fuel sources like coal and gas.”

    If the people who think nukes are a good idea were willing to pay for renewables the same price they’re paying, and are going to have to pay, for nukes, we could have started building RE and batteries into the grid in much larger quantities a long time ago, made their price come down even faster, and be much farther along decarbonizing than we are now.

    • jfon Says:

      In 2010, Japan was planning to get 53% of their power from nuclear, and 11% from coal, by 2030, which would have halved coal use. Instead, now coal is 33% and nuclear below 2%. Wind and solar were about 6%. Power prices have also gone up over 20%. If coal costs more than established nuclear, it’s hardly credible that wind and solar will be as cheap – German household prices have doubled under the Energiewende, and they still get nearly 40% of power from coal.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Don’t waste your time trying to educate Jeffy. His cognitive bias and love of hearing himself talk make him impenetrable to facts and logic.

        He has the gall to usurp the name of one of the most famous and important Americans for his WordPress “handle”—-Thomas Jefferson—-and even attempts to emulate Jefferson’s writing style with his long winded screeds. Sad!

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Bad logic. Unwarranted leap to conclusion.

        Most of the coal burners and nukes in the US are losing money because they can’t compete with solar and wind. Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of electricity, and in many places even with storage and no subsidies (while fossil and fissile fuels have enormous externalities) are competitive with already-built gas (and even without storage, cutting edge offshore wind now has a higher capacity factor than coal or gas.) Within a year or 2 they’ll almost certainly be cheaper than any other fuel anywhere–new, old, borrowed, blue…

        Not that that matters unless you’re as insane as our political-economic system is and prioritize profit for the already-rich over the survival of civilization and nature.

        Except wait. Apparently you are. It’s not my fault that countries, the oligarchy, and trolls are that insane, in the thrall of psychotic psychopaths in the fossil fuel, agrochemical and banking industries, and refuse to build renewable energy fast enough; I’m doing everything I can to heal them. If they weren’t, every country in the world would have started seriously moving to efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewable energy by 1973, would be at 100% by now, and there would be no climate crisis. But those of you with bigmanlymachine bias and whatever other problems you have have always been willing to pay phenomenal prices for fossil and fissile fuels that you won’t pay for much more benign clean safe renewable energy. That’s pretty sick.

  5. redskylite Says:

    The U.A.E is quite an interesting area to watch as they are introducing a mixture of clean energies, including, hopefully, nuclear. Oil was discovered in the gulf, under old oyster pearl beds, in 1958, led by British oil interests at the time.

    The region is predicted to be severely affected by warming as the century progresses, the warmth of the Persian Gulf, takes up some of the nuclear power capacity in cooling and this will increase as the water temperature increases as time passes by. Notably Nuclear power stations have to be quiesced during extreme high temperature episodes, encountered during heatwaves, which makes me wonder about the future prospects of nuclear in this area.

    Global Voices:

    A look at United Arab Emirate’s renewable energy goals
    UAE wants to get 30% of energy from clean energy by 2030

    The UAE aims to meet 30 percent of its energy needs from clean energy by 2030. Currently, the UAE claims to have 0.54 percent of its clean energy share, and this includes both renewable and nuclear energy.

    Worldwide, IRENA set a target of meeting 65 percent of energy via renewable sources by 2050. However, IRENA also predicted that at current trends, the world can only meet 25 percent of that goal.

    A worried Joseph also said, “We really need to figure out a way to bridge that 40 percent gap.”

    “The plant treats the water with small amounts of chlorine and anti-corrosive chemicals and sends it to the condenser. By the time it leaves the plant it’s about 30 degrees warmer.

    Legally, Pilgrim is not allowed to discharge water more than 32 degrees above the ambient temperature of the bay, or over 102 degrees. Most days, this isn’t a problem, but there have been a few times — most recently, last August — when the bay got too warm and the plant had to power down.

    Marine life can build up inside the condenser tubes and intake structure, so the plant must occasionally reverse the flow of the water and “backwash” the system. In these situations, the plant is allowed to discharge water hotter than the 102 degrees. Thermal backwashes occur four to six times a year at Pilgrim. The NRC says while backwashes create a thin thermal plume near the intake structure, it dissipates within a few hours and has little impact on the surrounding environment.”

    • redskylite Says:

      Amid climate concerns, nuclear plants feel the heat of warming water

      Nuclear power proponents say the energy source is crucial to reducing the impact of climate change.

      But ironically, “We’ll have to solve global warming if we want to keep using nuclear power,” says Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety expert Dave Lochbaum.

      That’s because nuclear power plants need large amounts of water for cooling, and overheating can present a major safety risk. As the lakes and rivers that typically supply cooling water become hotter thanks to climate change — and as droughts dry up some water bodies — nuclear power plants face problems, researchers say.

    • redskylite Says:

      “In this work, the effect of weather condition mainly temperature on the thermal efficiency of a nuclear power plant has been analyzed. Tropical region has been focused where the atmospheric temperature during summer is within the range of 35-45 0 C with relative humidity of 50-80%. In order to evaluate the effect of atmospheric temperature, a simplified thermal hydraulic model of the secondary coolant loop of a VVER-1200 reactor-based nuclear power plant has been developed. This model, which is basically a Rankin cycle, is used to predict the change in overall plant efficiency due to change in condenser pressure. From the derived analytical equations considering the simplified Rankin cycle, it is observed that the overall plant efficiency may reduce from 37.44% to 33.65% for 4 kPa to 15 kPa condenser pressures, respectively, which is highly dependent on the available tertiary coolant water temperature as well as atmospheric temperature conditions. This may result in higher construction and operation costs of nuclear power plants in tropical regions compared to cold countries. A significant increase in the condenser thermal load with regard to condenser pressure is also observed in this study.”

  6. redskylite Says:

    Slight delay to the progress of the Barakah nuclear plant. . .

    The startup of the United Arab Emirates’ first nuclear power project looks likely to slide into 2020 as a result of a lengthy approval process and repairs to two of the units.

  7. J4Zonian Says:

    Jacobson gets it; that other people don’t is mystifying. There were a number of other people making false or misleading statements in the video. V.C. Summer, and Vogtle are not the only bad (re)actors. Don’t forget Hinckley Point, Flamanville, Olkiluoto-3, a number of Chinese reactors, in addition to the mentioned S. Korean troubles. Numerous major bankruptcies and unravelings have happened and more almost certainly will.

    This is an emergency! We don’t have time to invent things. In the end, it hardly matters whether the GND accepts nukes or not; if we simply rely on best practices–or even just price–no more nukes will be built for the duration, and whenever the duration ends it’s very likely wind and/or solar with storage, geothermal, and distributed generation smart grids will be so established and cheaper by far, making the price gap between nuke electricity and RE electricity so huge it will never be overcome.

    The precautionary principle should not only be applied to toxic substances; but to waste processes (no benign end product, no play) and to overall industry management. The least damaging result of inevitable corruption and incompetence should be the only level we accept. Wind slicks over the oceans and solar panel meltdowns hurt no one.

    Zeke Hausfather says nukes are having trouble competing with gas. Gas is having trouble competing with wind and solar with storage; soon it won’t be able to at all. None of them can compete with efficiency and waste elimination—and more than 85% of US energy is wasted, not even counting the astounding waste by the military empire and indulgences of the rich. Getting efficient is always the first priority when solarizing and winderating; we need to make it ours, too. If nukes are having trouble competing with efficiency, wiser lives, RE, and gas, they should be nationalized and their shutdown coordinated with the installation of efficiency and RE and the learning of wiser ways of living. (1)

    Our whole US-and-beyond energy system needs to be designed as a coordinated system for it to be built, and operate, efficiently and work well, to use the best sites instead of just where some corporate entity wants to build, and trying to combine those haphazard monads into a coherent system that doesn’t degrade any land that should be left alone. Canada, eg, has a 60% hydro grid with fantastic wind and decent solar and geothermal potential, that we can hook into, instantly raising our own access to dispatchable renewable power. (US NW, the same.) The US SW and Mexico have lots of potential for CSP and PV. And so on. All of it can be hooked together.

    (1) See the update video on The Age of Stupid? 5:04
    The land owner finally got to build 3 of the 16 wind turbines he wanted; it took 3 days to erect (all or each one wasn’t specified. Hardly matters–3 days!) Opposition fueled only by personal bias of locals and the lies they told, made it take longer.

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