Power market developments: South Korea

The road to self-reliance

20 April 2012

The tale of Korea’s quest to master the ‘know-hows’ and ‘know-whys’ of nuclear power technology is told, for the first time. By Caroline Peachey

The author, who served as project manager for the nation’s first nuclear power reactor system design project at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute uses his unique position to share tales of this golden age in nuclear power development in Korea. Through both personal memoirs and interviews with friends and colleagues Kim livens up what might otherwise be a list of dates, facts and figures.

Nuclear Silk Road
Nuclear Silk Road

Nuclear Silk Road mainly centres on the period spanning the 1980s, when the dream of nuclear self-reliance became a national priority for South Korea. Starting in the early 1980s Korea embarked on projects to localize nuclear fuel production for pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs) that were being built in the country by foreign suppliers. By the mid-1980s this success had spurred the launch of a much more ambitious programme that aimed to standardize the design of nuclear power plants and to achieve self-sufficiency in building them.

In 1986 Combustion Engineering–at the time a relatively unknown nuclear vendor– was selected as Korea’s technology partner for the Yonggwang 3&4 project. This deal, which included technology transfer, is the foundation of Korea’s nuclear technology today.

Since the first ‘standard’ nuclear power plant Yonggwang 3 was completed in 1995, achieving the goal of 95% self-reliance, an additional ten reactors of that type have been built in Korea.

The country later moved on to developing its own ‘next generation reactor’ technology. This design, the APR-1400, was selected as the technology choice by the UAE in a competitive tender in 2009. The Korean experience with full nuclear power plant life cycle from design, manufacturing, construction, operation & maintenance, and radwaste, clearly played a role in this milestone win, which drawing parallels with the CE win decades earlier came as a ‘surprise’ to some larger more established vendors.

As the book progresses it begins to cover the further development of nuclear technology, including modifications of the Yonggwang design to take into account lessons from the Three Mile Island Accident of 1989. Part II also gives readers a brief insight into work that now underway to fully ‘Koreanize’ the APR-1400 design, for which aspects including the reactor core design codes, reactor coolant pumps, the man machine interface system are still supplied by foreign entities. Other projects are underway including the development of a small modular reactor (SMART) and the APR+, an evolution of the APR-1400 design are also touched on, together with the history of research reactor technology development in Korea.

The book (227 pages in length) is split into two sections. Part I: Technology over Politics focuses on the build-up of nuclear power infrastructure in the 1980s in preparation for the Yonggwang 3 nuclear power plant project; the first to be managed entirely by Korean firms. It discusses the significance of the ‘surprise’ choice of Combustion Engineering as Korea’s technology partner and the fallout from this decision.

In this section the author also muses how timing of the Chernobyl accident played into the hands of Korea, helping it dictate the favourable technology transfer terms, that put it in the position to compete in the international market today.

Part II. Know-hows and Know-whys covers technology transfer in more detail and looks in detail at the missions of Korean engineers to Windsor, Connecticut. With personal accounts from both the Korean and US parties this really gives an insight into how the Koreans did it.

Within this section the author makes the point that Korea’s choice to opt for pressurized water reactor technology over AGR technology (from the UK); PHWR technology (from Canada) or BWR technology (also from the USA) was by ‘no accident.’ This choice is certainly one of the key factors contributing to the strong position of Korea as an exporter of nuclear power plant technology today. However, sadly there is not much detail on the technical motivation behind this decision, which appears to have been strongly influenced by one engineer Kim Chong-joo (1921-1993), who was trained at Harwell reactor school in 1959 and educated at MIT engineering department. Tasked with completing a feasibility study on the nuclear power technology choices (that unfortunately cannot be sourced), part of Kim Chong-joo’s motivation for choosing PWR over AGR technology seemed to be the lack of transparency of the British about their design (according to his personal diary).

The huge sense of both national and personal pride in Korea’s success at becoming an exporter of nuclear power plant technology is clearly evident when reading this book. As such, the book covers the ‘whats’, ‘whens’, ‘hows’, and ‘whys’ (to some extent) but also a lot of ‘whos,’ naming dozens of engineers, politicians and other figures that contributed to the rise of nuclear power in Korea.

In my opinion the value in the book lies in quirky details and the personal stories. As the author says himself (p144) much of this story has remained untold until now; like many in the industry tales have not been shared even with wives or children.

One such tale fact relates to the ambitious Korean project to reverse-engineer nuclear fuel for the Wolsong reactors that had been supplied by AECL under a turnkey contract. Chapter 2 (pp32-33) tells of a ‘clandestine operation’ to the fuel storage vault at the Wolsong plant shortly prior to initial core loading so that Korean engineers could verify the geometric and mechanical integrity of their prototype fuel.

All in all, I recommend this book and commend the author for giving a real human insight into the ‘Koreanization’ of nuclear power technology: a dream that seemed almost unthinkable for a poor, developing Korea 25 years ago.

Author Info:

This article was published in the April 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

Book information

Nuclear Silk Road, The 'Koreanization' of Nuclear Power Technology (ISBN 978-1-45642-258-5) by Kim Byung-Koo is available in paperback and also on Amazon Kindle, priced £6.95.

Nuclear Silk Road Nuclear Silk Road

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