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[Editorial] Consider SMRs positively

DP leader makes suggestion that pushes against Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy

In front of President Moon Jae-in, Rep. Song Young-gil, chairperson of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, made a suggestion that pushes back against Moon’s stubborn policy to phase out nuclear energy.

In a meeting between Moon and the party leadership at the presidential office on Friday, Song said that South Korea needs to hold China and Russia, two dominant players in the global nuclear reactor market, in check by cooperating with the US strategically in the field of small modular reactors for nuclear power. He said that the US administration under President Joe Biden supports research into small modular reactors in a bid to reach carbon neutrality.

Though Song did not suggest directly that Moon modify his nuclear phase-out policy, he effectively delivered a message that the policy must not be unconditional and absolute. Moon should consider Song’s remarks positively.

Two years ago as a lawmaker of the party, Song called for the Moon administration to consider resuming the construction of the Shinhanul 3 and 4 nuclear power plants.

A small modular reactor is an all-in-one nuclear reactor, in which reactor, steam generator, pressurizer, and coolant pump are all integrated into one vessel.

They can be manufactured and assembled at a central factory. They are particularly useful in remote locations. SMRs can generally be attached to other modules to provide increased power supplies if necessary.

SMRs can be useful in achieving carbon neutrality. Nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas in the process of energy production. Last October, Moon announced that South Korea would go carbon neutral by 2050.

Small-scale reactors are starting to be developed around the world as a safer and cheaper form of nuclear power.

NuScale, an American company specializing in SMRs, is reportedly planning to have 12 small reactors deployed by 2030 in the US. South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction is a strategic investor in the NuScale project and supplies them with equipment and materials.

Japan’s JGC has invested in NuScale and plans to build SMRs on its own.

Korea developed the System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor, an integral-type small reactor dubbed SMART, on its own. But its further progress has been slowed due to the policy to abolish nuclear power generation.

Nuclear power technology has steadily evolved. Recently technology to recycle used fuel is being developed. But Moon’s policy to shut down all of the nuclear power plants in the country is ruining Korea’s industrial ecology for nuclear power.

Korea should advance its own SMR technology, but it is more urgent to resume the suspended construction of Shinhanul nuclear power plants 3 and 4. At least, the country should keep alive the ecology of its nuclear energy sector.

Without utilizing both nuclear and renewable energies, it would be impossible to achieve carbon neutrality. However, the Moon administration instead chooses to turn away from nuclear power as it seeks to go carbon free. This does not hold water.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that nuclear generation has come into the limelight again. Japan’s nuclear power industry is rebounding after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in 2011. China seeks to increase capacity of its nuclear power plants sharply while exporting nuclear technology. Nuclear energy is the largest clean energy source in the US.

But South Korea, swayed by prejudiced environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists, has branded nuclear power as the source of catastrophe and is abolishing it. It is voluntarily breaking down its world-leading nuclear generation industry. This is a self-inflicted injury.

The Moon administration has pushed solar and wind power generation as an alternative to nuclear power plants. But these forms of alternative energy are not only costly and variable in their output, but also criticized for damaging the natural environment. Forests are cleared to install solar panels. Wind turbines are causing noise disturbance.

Nuclear energy has both pros and cons. What matters is how to manage the disadvantages. Wiping out nuclear generation itself just because of the disadvantages is not a solution.

The last thing the Moon administration should do is to cripple the country’s nuclear generation industry irreparably. Only when it remains alive can Korea try to catch up with front-runners in SMR and other nuclear energy technologies.