SOUTH KOREA // A forested hill in Kori on South Korea's south-east coast offers a study of the country's nuclear history. On one side is its first nuclear reactor, built in 1978 by Westinghouse, a US company. On the other side stands the skeleton of the latest model, wholly designed by South Koreans and scheduled for completion in September 2013. The new design is the culmination of decades of research and development that saw South Korea transformed from an importer of foreign technology to a nuclear exporter in its own right.
Known as the APR 1400, the reactor is designed to compete on a safety and efficiency level with the best technology from France and Japan, and will anchor South Korea's domestic and international nuclear reactor sales. The government will build four of the plants before it completes Abu Dhabi's first reactor in 2017, giving it time to iron out any kinks that may appear in the construction process, said Dr Whang Joo-ho, a nuclear expert at Kyung Hee University, who was involved in creating South Korea's nuclear programme.
"We already began constructing the APR 1400 far in advance, before we sent it to the UAE [for bidding]," Dr Whang said. "We'll know what kind of problems [there may be], and we'll know how to solve [them]." So far, South Korean firms involved in building the plant have encountered few setbacks on the inaugural plant. Construction was well ahead of its expected rate of progress at the end of last month.
The Abu Dhabi Government's decision last month to choose the APR 1400 over competing models from France and Japan was the ultimate vindication of the design's capability, Dr Whang said. "Price-wise it has already acquired competitiveness, and the more meaningful thing is that in this bidding, the bidding material was investigated and rated by world experts collected by UAE Government," he said. The first plant will be completed more than 20 years after the South Korean government decided it could improve an existing model based on American technology, Dr Whang said.
It comes almost 60 years after the country sent its first students to the US to learn about nuclear technology, at a time when it was among the poorest in the world. "Our engineers devoted themselves to construction of nuclear power plants day and night," Dr Whang said. "We found we could save a lot of money by providing a good government-led research and development system, which was found to be very efficient."
In the late 1980s, South Korea entered into a series of agreements with Combustion Engineering of the US to acquire its nuclear reactor technology. The initial result was a modified design built mostly of South Korean components, followed by a series of major changes that led to today's model. "In terms of performance and seismic design, the APR 1400 is much better than the OPR 1000 [the older model]," said Byun Jun-yeon, the executive vice president of Korea Electric Power Corporation. "The APR 1400 and the OPR 1000 are very different in terms of safety, efficiency, price competitiveness and design life."
Becoming self-sufficient in the nuclear market was an imperative driven by the country's need to find alternatives to costly energy imports, but it had ultimately paid dividends to the economy as well, Mr Byun said. "Nuclear energy has played a fundamental role for our automobile industry, our IT industry, and ship building industry because nuclear power plants are a combination of cutting-edge technology, equipment and talent," he said.
"So Korea has developed these industries by localising these technologies related to nuclear power plants." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org