Back To Top

[Editorial] Falling nuclear industry

Government must keep alive industry ecology at the least to export reactors

The government policy to phase out nuclear energy is acting as a drag on national interests.

South Korea failed to win an exclusive long-term maintenance service contract for a nuclear power station in the United Arab Emirates. As it has been building reactors of the Barakah nuclear power plant with its proprietary technology, Korea looked forward to a 10- or 15-year contract, but the UAE awarded only a five-year deal.

The leadership of maintenance work will be retained by Nawah Energy, a UAE company, which will operate the Barakah plant. Korean maintenance companies will have to provide services only at Nawah’s request as its subcontractors.

Because Nawah selected the Korean consortium as one of multiple partners, it may award parts of the maintenance work to other partners.

The Barakah plant was the first nuclear power plant exported by Korea. The project covers many stages including construction, operation and maintenance. Maintenance and repair are as important as construction.

The contract seems to signal the start of the fall of Korea as one of a handful of nuclear power plant exporters.Nawah Energy said its decision-making process to select multiple maintenance partners is unrelated to Korea’s nuclear policy.

But the current anti-nuclear policy could not have added much credibility to Korea’s maintenance ability.

Under the influence of the nuclear phase-out policy, the ecology of Korea’s nuclear industry is showing signs of collapse, with manpower dwindling fast.

It is unclear how many competent engineers will be left in the Korean nuclear industry in just five or 10 years.

Given these circumstances, the UAE may have felt uncomfortable making a long-term, exclusive deal.

Kepco KPS, which will provide maintenance services to the Barakah reactors, estimated last year in a report to the National Assembly that the number of its employees servicing domestic nuclear power plants would decrease from 2,112 in 2018 to 1,462 in 2030.

It expected its overseas maintenance staff to increase from 110 to 418 in 2030, but it will have to revise the number down due to Korea’s failure to secure rights to service the Barakah reactors exclusively for as long as expected.

At this rate, Korea will likely vanish out of the nuclear power plant market rapidly.

If the nation is to survive in the market, it must keep alive the ecology of its nuclear industry at all rates. If the ecology should be maintained, it must keep operating domestic nuclear power plants at the least.

But the government under President Moon Jae-in has suspended the construction of nuclear power plants and scrapped plans to build new ones.

According to the Korean Nuclear Society, 40 percent of about 90 major contractors to nuclear power plants have reduced their organizations since the government pursued a nuclear phase-out policy. Six builders of nuclear power plants downsized their manpower 22.5 percent over the past two years.

The employment rate of university graduates with nuclear engineering majors plunged from the 50 percent range to 30 percent level.

An increasing number of nuclear engineering majors have dropped out or double-majored, with some universities even abolishing related departments.

Korean parts suppliers to nuclear power plants have been changing their business fields.

The Moon administration aims to replace all of the nuclear power plants in the nation by 2082 under its renewable energy plan, but the industry ecology will likely crumble long before that.

If the government fails to slow the pace of retreat from the nuclear industry, the day may soon come when Korea will have to entrust the operation and maintenance of domestic nuclear power plants to foreign experts.

To avoid this, it must not let the ecology of the nuclear industry crumble entirely. It ought to resume the suspended construction of nuclear power plants and raise the operation of existing ones to an appropriate level.

A nuclear power plant is operated for decades. Which country would be willing to make a contract with a country whose future supply of engineers and parts is uncertain?

It is mere fantasy for a country to think it can export nuclear power plants even after its related industry has crumbled entirely.