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Go Nuclear or Go Home
[ Issue 156 Page 13 ] Monday, September 25, 2017, 20:36:48 Yehhyun Jo Head of Society yehhyunjo18@kaist.ac.kr

The Future of Nuclear Energy in Korea

The Moon administration plans to phase-out nuclear energy in South Korea over the next few decades, and has already decommissioned a nuclear power plant and halted the construction of two new ones. This policy has been met with strong opposition from both within and without the nation, placing the future of Korea’s energy production at a critical juncture.

In light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, public sentiment in many developed nations has shifted against nuclear energy, and subsequently several European countries including Germany have announced plans to phase out nuclear energy in favor of solar, wind, and hydroelectric alternatives. It seems that the Korean government is following suit. However, with our climate, geography, and advanced nuclear technology, I believe that Korea should instead place nuclear energy at the center of the nation’s energy policy initiatives and dedicate more effort into the research and development of the technology.

The geography of the Korean peninsula does not favor vast solar or wind farms, and bio-energy technology still has a long way to go before becoming competitive and commercially viable. Also, the nature of solar and wind, which are dependent on weather conditions, makes them highly unreliable sources of energy.

In the US, companies like Transatomic are designing power plants that utilize energy more efficiently and minimize nuclear waste, and research institutes around the world are attempting to completely revise the traditional fuel rods with new materials. Professor Per Peterson of University of California, Berkeley and his team of nuclear engineers have created golf-ball-sized, spherical fuel cells that are engineered to withstand immense temperatures and physical shock, therefore preventing meltdowns and radioactive leakage. Thorium reactors and modular plants are also gaining traction as engineers and entrepreneurs continue to innovate to create safer and more accessible power plants.

Nuclear plants are already carbon-friendlier than solar panels, and with these new advancements in fuel efficiency and waste reduction, nuclear power could become a safe and reliable source of clean energy. Korea, with its advanced nuclear technology and many nuclear plants, could benefit immensely from nuclear energy if we choose to invest in the technology. The Moon administration states that they will not abandon the export of our nuclear technology, but that is not the critical issue at hand; our exports, while important to the economy, by definition do not satisfy the domestic need for clean energy. If the government moves away from the production of nuclear energy in Korea, a significant portion of the research funds disappears along with the plants themselves — that is the larger issue for Korea.

While it is true that nuclear power plants take time to construct and are costly to build, the bottom line is that Korea, and the rest of the world, need nuclear energy. Solar and wind will not be enough to completely satisfy our energy demands. Even countries like Germany and states like California that have shut down most of their nuclear plants in favor of solar and wind still get their backup energy from burning natural gas.

The combination of all these factors leads to the conclusion that it is in the interest of the Korean government to continue to push for the development of nuclear technology while creating market-friendly policies for solar, wind, and bio-energy innovators in the private sector. In other words, the technologies for all renewable energies should be cultivated, but the government should enact policies that specifically enhance our nuclear energy capabilities. We should not build more, as previous administrations did, but better nuclear plants. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and other alternative forms of renewable energy sources should largely be left to the free market, with favorable regulations provided by the state to incentivize companies to innovate.

Nuclear energy has had some bad publicity in the past, and for good reason. But times are changing and newer technologies are making nuclear energy more efficient, reliable, and safe than ever before. The Korean government should integrate the potential of nuclear energy into public energy policies, and leave solar, wind, and bio to the private sector, eventually creating a nation run by a mix of all these types of energy sources.

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