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How Japan's Fukushima crisis will affect Asia's No. 2 nuclear power: South Korea

At stake is South Korea’s dream of running much of the country’s economy on nuclear power – and exporting that technology to emerging global markets.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / March 29, 2011

South Korean environmentalists stage a rally demanding halt of expansion of nuclear power plants by the government in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 29. Fears over possible radiation contamination are growing in South Korea, the country closest to Japan, after the latter's nuclear power plants were damaged by the March 11 tsunami. The letters read 'No nuclear power plants.'

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

The nuclear crisis that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11 has sent a tremor through South Korea’s nuclear program, the second largest in Asia after the Japanese.

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“We are doing stress tests,” says Lee Jin-ho, director of international cooperation at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety. “We are checking safety. We are doing all kinds of evaluation and experiments.”

At stake is the future of South Korea’s dream of not only running much of the country’s huge and growing economy on nuclear power but also of exporting nuclear reactors to clients around the world.

As Korea adds five nuclear reactors to the 21 it already has and builds its first four reactors for export, the need for enhanced safety assumes paramount importance. Since putting its first reactor on line in 1978, Korea has come to rely on nuclear energy for 40 percent of its electrical needs and aims to have nearly 60 percent of its electrical power come from nuclear energy by 2020.

“We are considering more factors in the design of reactors,” says Mr. Lee. “We are taking more measures to prevent hydrogen explosions” – such as those that ripped away portions of the roof and walls of units at the Fukushima plant – as well as backup systems.

Japan nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

Changes in South Korea? Yes. No. Maybe.

“Currently there is no change to Korea's nuclear energy policy,” says the nuclear industry department of the ministry of knowledge and economy in an e-mail. “We are conducting safety checks on all 21 nuclear units.”

Ministry officials refuse to elaborate on that statement, while nuclear safety officials talk frankly of unresolved issues. They say potential foreign customers are reluctant to negotiate amid fallout from the disaster at Fukushima.

South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries, the company that manufacturers all Korea’s reactors, is in the midst of building reactors for export to the United Arab Emirates, a breakthrough $20 billion deal that was expected to turn Korea into a major reactor exporter. Nobody is talking about delaying or suspending that deal. Korea has put on hold sales pitches to other countries, ranging from Egypt to Malaysia.

“Countries want safer reactors with better regulatory bodies,” says Choi Jong-bae, director of science and technology policy at the ministry of education, science, and technology. “The current operating reactors are fully safe, but we didn’t think of this type of disaster in Japan. We have to add more systems.”

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