South Korea: has it got nuclear right?

1 October 2006

Today, nuclear is big business in South Korea, with 20 reactors in operation and significant plans for the future, a well-developed nuclear research establishment and companies now ready to supply the wider world industry. Yet this hasn’t happened by accident: it’s the result of well-laid plans and good execution over an extended period of time.

The ‘economic miracle’ has taken Korea from developing country to advanced industrial nation very quickly. This performance is sometimes compared with Japan, but Korea was starting from a much lower base, without any significant industrialisation prior to the 1970s. Thus in some ways it is even more remarkable. Over the last three decades, the country has enjoyed 8.6% average annual growth in GDP, which has caused corresponding growth in electricity demand – up by a factor of ten from 36TWh in 1978 to 365TWh in 2005. The growth rate was maintained at more than 9% per annum from 1990 to the early years of the new century but is now expected to slow appreciably to 3-4% per annum in the period 2006 to 2010. Per capita consumption in 2005 was 6172kWh, up from less than 1000kWh in 1980.

In 2005, nuclear generating capacity was 17.7GWe, representing 28.5% of the total – the remainder being mainly coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG). But with high plant utilisation, it satisfied 40% of annual demand (147TWh).

The first nuclear reactor to achieve criticality in South Korea was a small research unit in 1962 and ten years later, construction began of the first nuclear power plant, Kori 1, which reached commercial operation in 1978. After this there was a burst of activity, with eight reactors under construction in the early 1980s. The first three commercial units, Kori 1 & 2 and Wolsong 1, were bought as turnkey projects. The next six, Kori 3 & 4, Yonggwang 1 & 2, Ulchin 1 & 2, comprised the country’s second generation of plants and involved local contractors and manufacturers. At that stage the country had six PWR units derived from Combustion Engineering in USA, two from Framatome in Europe and one from AECL in Canada, of radically different design.

In the mid 1980s the Korean nuclear industry embarked upon a plan to standardise the design of nuclear plants and to achieve much greater self-sufficiency in building them. In 1987 the industry entered a ten-year technology transfer programme with Combustion Engineering (later acquired by Westinghouse) to achieve technical self-reliance, and this was extended in 1997. A sidetrack from this was the ordering of three more Candu 6 PHWR units from AECL in Canada, to complete the Wolsong power plant. These units were built with substantial local input and were commissioned from1997 to 1999.

In 1987 the industry selected the CE System 80 steam supply system as the basis of standardisation. Yonggwang units 3 & 4 were the first to use this, with great success. A further step in standardisation was the Korean Standard Nuclear Plant (KSNP), which brought in some further CE System 80 features and incorporated many of the US advanced light water reactor design requirements. It is the type used for all subsequent 1000MWe units as well as the two originally planned for construction in North Korea.

In the late 1990s, to meet evolving requirements, a programme to produce an Improved KSNP, or KSNP+, was started. This involved design improvement of many components, improved safety and economic competitiveness, and optimising plant layout with streamlining of construction to reduce capital cost. Shin Kori 1&2 will represent the first units of the KSNP+ programme, and are expected to be among the safest, most economical and advanced nuclear power plants in the world. Beyond this, the Advanced Pressurized Reactor-1400 draws on CE System 80+ innovations, which are still evolutionary rather than radical. It offers enhanced safety and a 60-year design life, with initial construction cost expected to be $1400 per kilowatt, falling to $1200/kWe in subsequent units. This is about 10% less than the KSNP-1000 and is important to maintain nuclear’s cost competitiveness against coal. The first APR-1400 units – Shin Kori 3 & 4 – are at pre-contract stage, and operation is expected by 2013.

The current 20 reactors in operation in South Korea are performing at very high levels and the safety record is excellent. In 2005 the load factor averaged 96.5%, the highest of any country. Licence renewals are currently being negotiated, to extend operating lifetimes by ten years, starting with Kori 1 and Wolsong 1. Power uprates of up to 5% are also envisaged for Kori 3 & 4, and Yonggwang 1 & 2.


The current 20 reactors in operation in South Korea are performing at very high levels and the safety record is excellent

Until April 2001 South Korea’s sole electric power utility was Korea Electric Power Company (Kepco). The power generation part of Kepco was then split into six entities and all the nuclear generation capacity, with a small amount of hydro, became part of the largest of these, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co Ltd (KHNP). Kepco remains a transmission and distribution monopoly in public ownership but it is expected that the power generation companies, with the probable exception of KHNP, will eventually be privatised.

Government policy is to continue to have nuclear power as a major, indeed slightly increasing, element of electricity production. The Ministry of Science &

Technology (MOST) is planning to develop the South Korean nuclear industry into one of the top five in the world, with about 60% of electricity coming from nuclear by 2035. Another eight reactors are expected to come into operation by 2017, with four being the larger APR-1400s.

Within fuel cycle services, Korea has developed its own fabrication capacity to service its reactors. Korea Nuclear Fuel Company (KNFC) has capacity of 550t/y for PWR fuel and 700t/y for Candu PHWR fuel. Uranium comes from Canada, Australia, and elsewhere – there will be a joint venture company with Kazakhstan to exploit the extensive uranium reserves there. Around 3500tU are required to fuel the reactors in 2006, with enrichment requirements about 1.8 million SWU.

KHNP is responsible for managing all of its radioactive wastes. Fees are levied on power generation, collected by MOST and paid into a national nuclear waste management fund. Used fuel is stored on the reactor sites pending construction of a planned centralised interim storage facility by 2016, eventually with 20,000t capacity. Long-term, deep geological disposal is envisaged.

The development of the Korean nuclear sector has now reached the point where it can be regarded as potentially a major exporter. Having developed its own standardised reactor designs based on imported technology, it is now in a position to export these to other countries. The Chinese market is clearly attractive and geographically close but it is more likely that Kopec, the reactor design and engineering company, will concentrate on possible sales in new nuclear countries without strong existing ties, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and in South America. To this end, the Korean government has been signing nuclear cooperation agreements with such countries. The export effort is enhanced by having Doosan as a local, now privately owned, contracting company, which is already achieving substantial orders on a worldwide basis for replacement major plant components such as steam generators.

One disappointment, however, has been the Korean Energy Development Organisation (Kedo) project in North Korea. This was to build two 1000MWe reactors, but construction was suspended late in 2003 and the project terminated in mid 2006 owing to the acute political problems with North Korea. Most of the fabrication of steam generators, pressure vessels and other equipment for both reactors has been completed and this equipment can now be sold off to other nuclear projects.

In conclusion, the progress of nuclear in South Korea stands out as a remarkable achievement. Sound energy planning has been an important element, with security of energy supply the prime initial motivation for ‘going nuclear’, as it was in France and Japan. The environmental advantages of a high nuclear share have now become increasingly important too, while the excellent operating performance of the reactors has ensured very sound economics at a time when LNG prices have been very volatile. Korea is unusual in having detailed plans for electricity generation needs running many years into the future. These will have to be adapted as demand growth varies, but it seems certain that nuclear will remain a major and probably increasing component. Learning from imported technology, the ability to design and build a distinctive class of reactor should mean that exports are a reasonable prospect over the next ten years. In this, Korea is perhaps 10-15 years ahead of China, which is still evaluating the merits of competing western reactor styles.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at 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

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