South Korea currently has 21 nuclear power plants (NPPs). According to government statistics, atomic power produces about 40 percent of the country’s total electricity supply, roughly 18.5 gigawatts.
South Korea’s first NPP in Kori, South Gyeongsang province, came online in 1972 and the government is proud of announcing that its NPPs have not had any “major” accidents in the past four decades.
Recently however South Korea’s NPPs have had more than a few “hiccups,” as the Korea Herald recently put it.
On the morning of 14 December the Kori NPP suffered a ‘hiccup” when a temporary surge of electricity caused the facility’s safety mechanisms to shut the complex down.
The incident was preceded 12 hours earlier by an industrial accident at the 1 million kilowatt Uljin NNP complex, about 200 miles southeast of the capital Seoul, which also went offline following a momentary failure of a steam turbine condenser. Two months ago, another mishap at another reactor in the Uljin NNP facility resulted in the reactor’s shutting down because of a malfunction of a coolant pump.
But back to the Kori NPP. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., the state-run nuclear plant operator, said it is working to figure out the reason for the Kori NNP incident, with a company official telling journalists, "A problem was detected in the generator, but it will take some time before we learn exactly what the problem is. There is no radiation leak or any safety threat."
But the Kori and Uljin NNP shutdowns have had a cumulative effect, as three additional reactors, two in the Uljin NNP complex and one in Wolseong, North Gyeongsang province, were recently shuttered for routine post-peak maintenance.
Between the “hiccups” and routine maintenance, 5 of South Korea’s 20 NNPs are effectively offline, an unsettling scenario for Seoul at the onset of winter, leaving officials to reassure the public about the possibility of electrical brownouts or even blackouts. Seeking to allay public concerns, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy issued a statement noting “There’s no problem despite the breakdowns as we maintain the electricity reserves at nearly 6.8 million kilowatts,” adding that reserves of 4 million kilowatts or higher are deemed sufficient.
Erring on the side of caution however, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy noted that later in the week it will curb demand from large industrial energy consumers and limit commercial and residential heating. The Ministry’s conservation package includes a 10 percent demand cut for large factories, caps on maximum temperatures for commercial buildings and the limiting the use of neon signs.
Contributing its bit, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. said that it plans to bring two of the off-lined reactors back onto the national power grid as early as next week, thus contributing an additional 1.7 million kilowatts.
The Ministry of Knowledge Economy is doubtless recalling that last January, a 23-minute power failure resulted in more than $60 million in losses at the country’s largest petrochemical complex in Yeosu, South Jeolla province, as demand subsequently soared to a record high of 73.14 million kilowatts.
But the country’s electrical supplies are not only impacted by cold weather, as in September the country suffered blackouts because people switched on their air conditioners in the midst of an unseasonable heat wave.
While the 11 March Fukushima nuclear debacle in neighboring Japan has caused some soul searching in Tokyo about the country’s future commitment to nuclear power, Seoul remains firmly on track for further developing the country’s nuclear power capacities to keep pace with the increasing demand for electricity, elevating nuclear's share of the country’s power generation to 56 percent, with eleven more reactors scheduled to come online in the next decade, adding 15.2 gigawatts to the national grid.
But roseate expansion plans aside, the recent “hiccups” have had two effects, first by putting South Korean electrical consumers on notice that NPPS have their “problems,’ and secondly, somewhat tarnishing South Korea’s overseas image as a technological powerhouse that has fully tamed the “power of the atom.” South Korea is seeking to export its nuclear technology and intends to export 80 nuclear reactors within the next two decades. The recent incidents at the Kori and Uljin NNP, combined with the nuclear “incident next door and possible imminent blackouts back home may force these ambitious goals to be somewhat downsized.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com