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Nuclear Power Development and Human Capacity Building in the Republic of Korea


Note: This article is based on the materials the author presented in the Session on Human Capacity Building at the Nuclear Value Chain Road Show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 17, 2014. The meeting was organized by Korea Nuclear Association (KNA) with the sponsorship of Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE).

Jong Hyun Kim (kimj@kaist.ac.kr)

Professor, Dept. of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering, KAIST

Director, Center for KUSTAR-KAIST Nuclear Cooperation

  Up until the mid 1960s, Korea’s per capita GDP was less than $100 per year, and the country had to rely on overseas financial aid that constituted 70% of the Korean income. Not surprisingly, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and was considered by many as “a poor and hopeless nation in Asia.” The country was totally devastated during the Korean war, left with hunger and no energy. Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, Korea rebuilt everything on its own ashes of destruction to transform itself into a modern dynamic nation.

  Today Korean GDP is over $1 trillion (ranked 15th in the world) with per capita GDP per annum of $24,000(nominal) and exceeding $33,000 (PPP-based). Moreover, bilateral trading is about $800 billion (ranked 10th in the world), and foreign currency reserve is about $350 billion ranking 8th in the world.

  How could South Korea (Republic of Korea – ROK), a small country straddled between big China and Japan, achieve this incredible miracle in such a short time? A simple and fast answer might be: a devotion to education, determination to get out of poverty and excel, and consistent energy policy and strategy built around nuclear power. The modern and dynamic Korea now hails as the world leader in many areas including: shipbuilding, semiconductors, TV and appliances, internet connectivity, and smart phones, just to name a few. It also prides itself in being one of the best in the steel industry, construction industry, automobile industry, and chemical plants.

  This article addresses Korea’s nuclear education program for human capacity building and nuclear power development.

  Since time immemorial, education has always been an indispensable part of Korean society. The strong parental desire to provide the best possible education for their children has nearly become embedded in the DNA of Korean people to the extent that it eventually created some serious social repercussions. Competition is so intense that it sometimes wreaks social and cultural havoc. Human capacity building in Korea’s nuclear technology development should therefore be understood from this context. The ROK government’s firm decision to go nuclear in late 1950s attracted many good students to nuclear engineering programs, which laid the foundation for Korea’s rise to become a world leader in nuclear technology and engineering.

  ROK now boasts more than a dozen reputable universities that offer nuclear engineering degree programs. Some of them have critical masses of world-class faculty, students, and facilities. A leader among them is the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) which has produced more than 50% of Ph.D. and 38% of M.S. degrees among the total number of nuclear engineering graduate degrees conferred in ROK. KAIST was founded in 1971 with the government’s mandate to create a university dedicated to education and research in science and technology. KAIST is heavily research oriented, leading the nation in research outputs in science and technology. The first nuclear engineering department in ROK was established at Hanyang University in 1958, followed by Seoul National University in 1959, and later by Kyunghee University in 1979. The department of Nuclear Engineering at KAIST was established in 1980 and already competes favorably against the top five nuclear engineering departments in the world in terms of the academic quality and performance. These schools and others have produced 7,495 nuclear engineers, with 5,277 BS, 1,639 MS, and 579 Ph.D. degrees. As of this writing, nearly 1,900 nuclear engineering students are currently enrolled in over a dozen universities. These are the past and future leaders in ROK nuclear technology development including construction, operation, maintenance, and other related areas. In addition, engineers of other technical denominations, such as mechanical, electrical, chemical, and civil, also constitute a highly-skilled human capacity pool required by the nuclear industry.

  Energy has been the driving force behind the explosive economic rise of South Korea and its energy policy, planning, and strategy have largely stayed the course of continuity and consistency. ROK does not produce a single drop of oil but the nation has a very high rate of consumption of petroleum and other fossil energy. Even now, ROK imports 97% of its primary energy, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) being one of the most important suppliers. With scarcity of energy resources, ROK had to develop and implement a sound energy plan and strategy. In 1958, the Korean government decided to develop nuclear technology and build commercial nuclear power plants with the goal to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel and decrease the cost of importing energy. The governmental decision to fold nuclear power in the energy mix turned out to be a national blessing, as nuclear energy has helped the country move more aggressively in the direction of energyintensive industries such as high-tech and heavy industries.

  The first generation of nuclear power plants in South Korea was built almost entirely by foreign contractors, with the first commercial nuclear power plant Kori-1 built in 1978. Since then, South Korea has made a great advancement in developing its own nuclear technology based on the US technology they had acquired. As a result, all nuclear plants built in South Korea since 1995 are based on at least 95% indigenous technology and those currently under construction are nearly 100% Korean technology. ROK is now a world leader in the construction, operation, and maintenance of nuclear power plants, and the ROK’s nuclear installed capacity currently stands at 20.7 GWe, generating approximately one third of the electricity for the country. In addition, ROK opened the world’s first nuclear safety school in 2004 to provide more structured and rigorous training for nuclear safety.

  Today, South Korea stands tall as a major global nuclear power. It is ranked 5th in the world in the volume of nuclear energy production. In the last 50 years, ROK tackled challenge after challenge to establish nuclear energy independence, culminating in the historic feat of exporting domestic nuclear technology to the United Arab Emirates. Currently, we face the task of developing next-generation nuclear power systems with radically enhanced economy, safety, and nonproliferation, in order to address critical challenges such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion that threaten the survival of our nation and humanity. This is both a challenge and opportunity for ROK’s industrial development and economic growth.

  Many economists project that South Korea’s demand for electricity will continue to grow at a healthy rate, eventually outpacing the current supply capacity. In response to this trend, ROK government developed an aggressive energy plan to meet the future demands. This plan calls for the construction of five additional nuclear plants - with all of them to be operational by 2018 - and four more units ready to be built. Now, South Korea wants to help other countries in meeting their future energy needs. With technology expertise and a wealth of experience acquired in the construction of nuclear plants, South Korea is well-positioned to export its worldclass nuclear technology. In particular, ROK would like to strengthen its friendship and alliance with KSA by expanding its scope of cooperation to include nuclear technology development and human capacity building.

  Towards building a long-lasting partnership in nuclear human capacity building, KAIST gave short courses in nuclear engineering at K.A.CARE in January 2014 – a historic step forward and the first of its kind in KSA. If KSA and ROK can someday jointly deploy nuclear technology to help other emerging nuclear countries, it will ultimately signify a crowning achievement of unprecedented scale and pride for both countries. It would be wonderful for the two friendly countries to dream together, would it not?

KAIST provided intensive short courses in nuclear engineering to K.A.CARE employees in January 2014. The graduation ceremony was attended by K.A.CARE President (H.E. Hashem Abdullah Yamani), the ROK Ambassador to KSA (Honorable Mr. Jin-Soo Kim), Prof. Poong Hyun Seong of KAIST, and many other dignitaries.

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