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.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
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.'

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.

“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.”

Preparing for the worst

Bureaucratic supervision also has to improve, say Mr. Choi and many others. Right now the government is considering proposals to turn the ministry’s nuclear safety division, which Choi headed until a recent transfer, into an independent commission with more people on wide-ranging authority.

“We would like to get a stronger organization for review and enforcement,” says Choi. Although Korea does not face the same danger as Japan from earthquakes and tsunamis, he says, Korea needs to be ready for the worst.

Korean authorities are searching for ways to guarantee safety, while officials report trace levels of radiation that could only have blown over the Korean peninsula on wind currents from Fukushima. The president of the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety reported Tuesday the discovery of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium at a dozen detection centers, including one in Seoul.

Officials said the amount was no cause for alarm, but the country has banned imports of all food items from Fukushima and three other nearby Japanese prefectures. In Korean markets, many shoppers are refusing to buy any food imported from Japan – and bitterly criticizing Korean authorities for minimizing the dangers.

“Of course we’re afraid of radioactive contamination,” says Kim Sung-hee, a woman working in an office in central Seoul. “The air and ocean are contaminated. They say the radiation rate is not serious, but people are afraid.”

Two weeks ago, she notes, Korean officials “said so strongly there’s no effect on the Korean peninsula, but now that’s all false.” Why, she asks, “did they claim there would be no impact?”

Those concerns are magnified in dealing with potential nuclear customers abroad.

No other choice

“In the initial term the impact is very large,” says Ryu Pyung-kye, in charge of an overseas team at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., a subsidiary of the state-controlled Korea Electric Power Co., which owns the four sites where Korea has all its reactors. Still, he agrees with Japanese officials on the continued need for nuclear power.

“In the long run there is no alternative,” he says. “We will stick to nuclear energy.” In the meantime, he predicts the Japanese crisis “will be prolonged” and “negotiations are not ongoing now.”

In the end, however, Mr. Ryu predicts changes for Korea's program that will further guarantee safety for a program that so far has suffered no major incidents.

Ryu says research and development to suit Korea’s needs will be part of the process. “We have to do research,” he says. “We have to set up a backup system for nuclear reactors. “We are setting up remedies as a result of the Fukushima event. It will take time.”

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