Nuclear power in South Korea: Past, present, future

Jack Unwin 1 August 2019 (Last Updated June 9th, 2020 13:36)

A look into South Korea’s history, present and future with nuclear power, a sector that faces an uncertain future.

Nuclear power in South Korea: Past, present, future
Shin Kori is the third biggest nuclear power plant in South Korea. Image courtesy of IAEA Imagebank.

When discussing nuclear in the Korean peninsula thoughts may immediately drift towards North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme.

However its southern neighbour has had nuclear power as a critical part of its energy mix since the 1970s. Nuclear power currently accounts for over 20% of the country’s energy needs, and is an industry valued at around $42bn, however this position is under threat.

After a domestic scandal involved fraudulent safety certificates and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in neighbouring Japan, current President Moon Jae-In was elected on a promise to begin the phase-out of nuclear power, despite public support for nuclear rebounding after Fukushima.

Power-technology profiles South Korea’s nuclear industry, from its past to its future and the corruption in-between.

South Korea’s nuclear power capacity

South Korea is described by the World Nuclear Association as being one of the “world’s most prominent nuclear energy countries.” It currently has 24 operational nuclear power plants with a total capacity of over 23GW.

Its largest power plant is the Hanul nuclear power plant, formerly known as the Ulchin plant. First built in 1983, the plant is formed of two pressurised water reactors (PWRs) and four OPR-1000 units and has a capacity of 6,157MW. Hanul is currently the third largest nuclear power plant in the world, with fellow South Korean nuclear plants Hanbit and Shin Kori in fourth and eighth place respectively.

The country has faced criticism for the fact that many of its nuclear reactors have been densely collected in the southeast of the country, near the cities of Gyeongju, Ulsan and Busan. In fact, South Korea has the densest collection of nuclear power plants in the world. After an earthquake measuring 5.8 in magnitude hit Gyeonju in September 2016, fears of another Fukushima were raised.

Nuclear plant decommissioning

South Korea’s nuclear industry is under threat, with the decommissioning of nuclear plants in the country already underway. The Kori nuclear plant, north of Busan, has already had one of its four reactors decommissioned in June 2017, with the other three facing closure between the years 2023-2025.

Other nuclear plants facing decommissioning are Yonggwang 1, formerly known as Hanbit in 2026 and the Wolsong nuclear plant, which will be retired by 2022. Nuclear plants are also being put on hold or cancelled altogether: the Cheonji nuclear plant, formed of four reactors, was cancelled by the current government in June 2018, while the expansion of Shin Hanul from two reactors to four was delayed from May 2017 to February 2019 due to government policy.

Corruption scandal

The nuclear industry of South Korea was rocked by a major corruption scandal in the years 2012-2013. Officials from the Korean Electric Power Corporation were found to be colluding with parts officials in order to forge safety certificates for parts throughout South Korea’s nuclear facilities.

A government investigation found that the forging of safety certificates had been carried out for over ten years, with thousands of forged certificates eventually found. In response to this, six of the then 23 operational reactors had to be taken offline in order to replace cabling that had been certified with the bogus certificates.

In all, 100 officials were indicted, leading to government policy coordinator Kim Dong-yeon to state that the officials were exhibiting “nuclear mafia style behaviour.”

South Korea appears to be moving away from the energy source towards renewable energy and natural gas for now. However, as South Korean Presidents can only sit for one term, President Moon will leave office in 2022, and his successor could reverse his policies and revive the industry, creating considerable uncertainty in the country’s nuclear sector.