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[Editorial] Soaring power demand

More nuclear reactors, renewables crucial to meet rising power demand amid AI boom

By Korea Herald

Published : June 3, 2024 - 05:30

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South Korea announced plans to build up to three new nuclear reactors by 2038, launch a 0.7-gigawatt small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) by 2035, and triple solar and wind power generation facilities by 2038.

As it takes about 14 years to secure a site for and build a nuclear reactor, the planned reactors could be operational by 2038 if the government begins the process this year.

Under the blueprint, carbon-free energy sources such as renewables and nuclear power will take up 70 percent of the country's electricity supply portfolio, up from about 40 percent in 2023.

Nuclear energy is expected to account for 31.8 percent of the country’s total power generation in 2030, and 35.6 percent in 2038.

It is the first time in nine years the government announced plans to build new nuclear reactors. Currently, the country runs 26 nuclear reactors, and four are under construction.

The road map to expand energy facilities is based on the forecast that South Korea’s maximum power demand could reach 129.3 gigawatts in 2038.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, which consumes a lot of energy, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy expects power demand at data centers and semiconductor facilities to more than double from 2023 to 2030. A mega semiconductor cluster under construction in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, is expected to require up to 10 gigawatts of power.

The International Energy Agency projects that power usage of data centers worldwide could reach up to 1,050 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2026. That is close to Japan’s annual electricity consumption and double the amount used in South Korea in 2022.

Hence, securing stable power supply has become a national task for countries around the world.

Those that had previously sought nuclear phase-out policies have shifted to nuclear power expansion. France said it will build 14 nuclear reactors by 2040. The UK plans to build up to eight by 2050. Sweden also said it will build at least 20 nuclear reactors. Japan, which had been cutting nuclear power generation since the earthquake in 2011, said it will increase the portion of nuclear power to up to 22 percent by 2030. The US and Japan have begun developing the new-generation SMRs. Governments are also investing heavily in renewable energy.

Big Tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple said they will require their key semiconductor suppliers, including Samsung Electronics and Hynix to use 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2030.

For now, nuclear power is the only way to provide a stable and copious supply of carbon-free electricity. South Korea has relatively weak infrastructure for wind and solar power, but as the technology is improving, the goal is to have renewable sources account for 32.9 percent of total power generation in 2038, up from 7.9 percent.

The energy blueprint has to pass an environmental effects evaluation, consultations within the government and be reported to the National Assembly in order to be confirmed. New reactors require selecting the site with the approval of residents nearby, and social consensus over processing of radioactive waste. Construction of infrastructure to transmit power is also necessary.

The government should promptly get to work, and the parliament must cooperate. It can start with swiftly pushing for legislation that provides grounds for building facilities to store spent fuel from nuclear plants.