Seoul — South Korea has banked its energy future on atomic power, even to the point of possibly becoming an exporter of nuclear plants.
Thirteen nuclear units with a total capacity of 11 billion kilowatts are expected to be in operation by 1991. This would be equivalent to 57 percent of the total energy-producing capacity forecast for that year.
These plants will help reduce South Korea's heavy burden of total dependence on imported oil, which last year cost about one quarter of total imports of $26 billion.
Only one unit is operating so far -- at Kori on the southeastern coast, on line since 1978. A second unit nearby is 84 percent complete. To learn the business from Western contractors, South Korean firms will be actively involved in 9 of the 13 power plants, with the exception of the reactors, says Chang Tong Choi, general manager of the nuclear division at Korea Electric Power Corporation (KECO).
''It was necessary to upgrade the ability of KECO and local industries to absorb the foreign technology,'' he says.
KECO is relying heavily on the expertise of an American firm, Bechtel, in the design phase. It is constantly sending its engineers to Los Angeles to gain experience with Bechtel. And local contractors will take 17 percent of the work on two units contracted to Framatome of France, which is also helping train engineers in Paris.
KECO has set up a subsidiary company, Korean Heavy Industries, which has been designated by the government as the sole supplier of major equipment.
According to Mr. Choi, ''This company will someday be totally private, but for the moment there is very heavy government involvement as it finds its feet.
''I don't think local firms can acquire enough technology to dominate the other four units now in the planning stage. We will still have to rely heavily on foreign makers.''
Buying uranium is not a problem for the moment. Through spot purchases and long-term contracts, the Koreans have obtained all they will need into the early 1990s from the United States, Australia, Canada, or France. With an eye on the long term, however, KECO is now engaged in uranium exploration in Paraguay and Gabon, in Africa.
For those reactors needing enriched uranium, KECO has signed agreements for enrichment services with the US or France. There is no thought for the moment of enriching or reprocessing fuel domestically, Mr. Choi says firmly. These steps must await development of ''internationally accepted standards.''
Although strongly intent on switching to nuclear power, the Koreans are not turning their backs on oil.
The emphasis for the future is more on self-help. This is being promoted by joint exploration with Indonesia of its coastal waters, for example. A feasibility study is under way for a similar arrangement with Peru.
The oil search is also being conducted off the Korean coast. Thirteen new areas have been designated after earlier drillings came up dry. The exploration program will move into high gear when a semisubmersible drilling rig is completed later this year by a Korean shipyard.
The Koreans are mostly going it alone, although there is a fledgling joint exploration program with Japan.