Nuclear programmes – do only ‘odd’ countries succeed?

3 September 2012

We know that building nuclear power stations anywhere today is extremely challenging, even in those countries such as China, Russia and South Korea which have the major share of units currently under construction. In what is usually called ‘the western world’, the number of units under construction is very low and, although there are many energy scenarios showing much more nuclear power in the world by 2030 or 2050, most of them see nearly all the growth being achieved elsewhere. Indeed, I argued in March 2012 that it isn’t just nuclear projects where these countries have a major problem. They also struggle with any major infrastructure projects, on account of public opinion problems, financing difficulties or (it unfortunately seems) just sheer lack of will to get things done.

We know that to get nuclear programmes completed, a lot of things have to be in place at the same time. If we look at France and Japan during the period of rapid nuclear growth in the 1970s to the 1990s, it is clear that strong national energy policies with consistent backing for nuclear are very important. In the 1980s, some countries, notably the United Kingdom, withdrew from having any energy policy, leaving it to something called ‘the market’. Clearly this was not good for nuclear, as it has so far proved very difficult to persuade the private sector to invest heavily in nuclear without the active support of the government. These issues show up in the current difficulties in getting new nuclear build underway in the United Kingdom. To be successful, it is simply not enough for nuclear to be advocated as an important part of some theoretical energy scenarios for the future. Someone has to take it up, believe in it, promote it strongly and push through projects that may encounter a huge number of difficulties along the way. This involves a very strong human element – it requires many of the most talented people in a country to be actively working in the nuclear sector to deliver a successful programme. But a lot of what constitutes ‘success’ seems to come down to something called ’will’. It needs a few clever and dedicated individuals to believe strongly in nuclear and then do everything they can to get a programme delivered, no matter how high the odds are stacked against them.

These thoughts came together during a recent visit to South Korea. I was there during the 62nd anniversary of the start of the Korean War; the end of the war is not marked because it hasn’t actually ended (no peace agreement has ever been signed with the North). Some of the news items prominent in the local English language media at the time were very interesting. The Korean Prime Minister was visiting the South American country of Colombia, the first-ever official visit there by a Korean delegation. Colombia was one of the countries which sent soldiers to join the largely US-dominated international army which opposed the North Korean invasion of the South, essentially led by the massed troops of Mao’s Chinese army. The PM visited a war memorial honouring the Colombians who died, and he met some surviving veterans (by now in their 80s) and relatives of those who had perished thousands of miles away in a distant land. The gratitude of the Koreans to the sacrifices made by this and many other nations was very much evident.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, there were reports of ceremonies attended by distant relatives of other international soldiers who had fought in the War. These lucky individuals had been given scholarships to study in Korea as a gesture of thanks for their grandfathers’ service in the desperate times for the nation so many years ago. It was perhaps surprising to note the countries from where the students originated. One of them was Ethiopia, clearly a poor country today but which had contributed a significant number of servicemen to the international army back in the early 1950s. At that time, Ethiopia was no doubt at a similar level of economic development to Korea, but was very much part of the international community and made its own contribution to what seemed a very important cause.

How times have changed! When the fighting stopped and the division of North and South Korea became institutionalised, the South had a level of national income per capita assessed at about US$100. Today it is at around US$20,000, up with all the developed nations, while Ethiopia (in common with much of Africa) is still a very poor country, often stricken by internal conflict and famine.

Clearly not every nation can be successful, but what national characteristics have led to the South Korean success story? It clearly cannot only be because the people are Korean, as their cousins in the North still languish at Ethiopian living standards. Nor is it merely that they are Asian, as many other countries in Asia such as Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines have not experienced such an economic miracle. We therefore have to look at the other Asian success economic success stories, Japan and Taiwan, for some clues.

Starting from a position of great adversity seems to have something to do with it. Like South Korea, Japan had experienced a major war which ended in national devastation. Taiwan developed in the shadow of its big communist brother just across the narrow straits which regards the island as part of its sovereign territory. Such difficult beginnings seem to forge a feeling of national unity, initially fostered by strong state control and somewhat repressive policies, despite which it carries through to today. Critics would argue that there is a lack of individualism, and it is certainly true that South Koreans all seem to think and speak with one voice. Asking for personal opinions in a question-and-answer session at the end of a presentation there usually elicits no more than shy smiles. There is never any cynicism; every Korean is part of ‘Korea Inc’ and the economy drives forward with only the odd bump on the way. Other important elements would seem to be strict economic planning, sheer hard work by lots of people, and allowing private enterprise to flourish within the state-imposed national framework. The profit motive would seem to be the biggest difference with North Korea, where citizens hamstrung by repressive state control over everything they do, say or even think are prevented from any opportunity of economic advancement. Also, the lack of access to domestic fossil fuel energy resources and hydro capacity must be important elements in the nuclear programme not only of Korea but also of Japan and Taiwan.

“Starting from a position of great adversity seems to have something to do with nuclear power success. Like South Korea, Japan had experienced a major war which ended in national devastation. Taiwan developed in the shadow of its big communist brother just across the narrow straits which regards the island as part of its sovereign territory. Such difficult beginnings seem to forge a feeling of national unity.”

Still, it took the South Koreans 20 years to begin to shake off the ‘poor country’ mantle. Presentations on the Korean nuclear programme made today by KEPCO or KHNP emphasize their early experience of research reactors in the 1970s and pay homage to the few visionary individuals who had the foresight and great energy to push nuclear power as an important energy resource for their nation. Openness to the outside world and international cooperation were also important elements, as they received help with reactor programmes from the United States, Canada and Europe. This has now reached the point where today Korea has its own national reactor type, suitable not just for its domestic nuclear programme, but for export too (as demonstrated by the order for four reactors from the United Arab Emirates).

Seoul today is a very prosperous-looking city, on par with Tokyo or Osaka. Now, the Koreans are worried about a very low birth rate, but at the weekend the shopping centres are full of smartly-dressed young people who will no doubt be capable of keeping the economy growing for many years in the future. The population has recently exceeded 50 million and although it may now be ageing (with increased life expectancy the other important factor), increased labour productivity from a smaller working population may well see them through.

Despite some rise in public opposition to nuclear power post-Fukushima, and after the recent safety alert at Kori 1, Korea seems set to continue its programme beyond the 23 units already in operation at one additional reactor a year up to 2030. The major difficulty may turn out to be obtaining sites for the additional reactors in the 2020s, as the current four sites will run out of space for extra units by then. But somehow this will undoubtedly be taken care of, as will the waste issue, which is rising in significance as the volume of stored used fuel grows rapidly. Its approach to public opinion is also an interesting one. There is a state-financed organisation KONEPA (Korean Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency) with about 70 young and enthusiastic staff, working with the Korean public at the local level to encourage public support. No other nuclear country has such a commitment.

But what lessons can we draw from South Korea for nuclear elsewhere? Is it an exception or could it be a rule? In other words, is it just a one-off, with no implications for other countries as it is just so weird? Or are their lots of things to learn that could be of benefit? The answer has to be a mixture of the two. Of the 200 or so countries in the world, South Korea is clearly one of the top economic success stories. The establishment of conglomerate ‘chaebol’ companies as big international brands such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG is arguably even more impressive than its nuclear programme (and something that the Chinese haven’t yet achieved). And it is probably impossible to completely replicate the Korean experience elsewhere, as the circumstances are always a little different. There must be another small ‘tiger economy’ hidden somewhere beyond all the media comment about the Chinese and Indian giants, but it may take some time for this contender to emerge.

On nuclear, however, there are some important lessons. Proper energy planning and both the will and means to put a big nuclear programme into operation are clearly crucial. A strong national consensus that a nuclear programme is both necessary and do-able is also important, as is the guarantee that support won’t suddenly be withdrawn by political change. Inspirational leadership can help as a lot of people need to pull together to develop the programme. And willingness to take in experience from overseas and use it to local advantage is clearly important too.

It is no doubt that the Korean experience provides a particularly good example for prospective new nuclear countries. For the established nuclear world, the message is a little different. The need for governments to be onside with nuclear programmes is obvious, and those programmes must be seen as important in achieving environmental, security of supply and affordability objectives in energy policy. Beyond this, significant nuclear programmes should be able to develop without including every Korean feature, as each major country has its own distinctive characteristics. However, a high degree of direct state involvement in nuclear is likely to be apparent in the period to 2020. The Chinese and Russian programmes will be central here, with the Indians hopefully following likewise.

This may, however, be only an interim stage. A lot of the lessons to learn from Korea have to do with standardization of reactor designs and project management of major infrastructure investments. These can no doubt be applied anywhere. Any development towards a more Korean approach by European and North American companies would offer a major benefit to their countries’ nuclear power programmes. It must be possible to adapt the Korean ability to achieve low reactor construction costs and strict adherence to fixed schedules to other markets through force of effort. Korean culture is clearly distinctive, but some of its success in nuclear (and other businesses) must be transferable.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is deputy director-general of the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

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