South Korea Stands With Japan, Will Not Back Down on Nuclear Energy

Allow us to paint a picture for you. The day is January 16th, 2023. The venue is Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In front of a raucous crowd gathered for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week's opening ceremony, South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol formally declared the path forward for his nation's industries.
South Korean Fission Reactor 19 photos
Photo: Korea Electric Power Corporation
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In no uncertain terms, the 62-year-old South Korean President of fewer than ten months declared that by 2050, the entirety of his nation's energy, manufacturing, and industrial strength would reach a 100 percent carbon-neutral state. A key factor due to bring South Korea to the carbon-free promised land is one steeped in controversy and an unshakable stigma as a result.

But like their strategic neighbors in Japan, South Korea aims to ditch the stigma behind nuclear energy in any of its forms. From fusion to fission, from Tokamaks to old-fashioned fission reactors, all options are on the table for bringing this goal to fruition. As detailed by a report from the Associated Press, this stark reversal of attitudes by East Asian countries to nuclear energy after decades of anti-nuclear activism is quite telling of new geopolitical attitudes following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With the Russian frenemies in the Chinese painstakingly close to South Korean sovereign territory, the amount of energy needed to maintain national security and a booming private sector will be colossal in the coming years. With more traditional alternative energy sources like wind and solar failing thus far to appropriately mitigate climate change on their own, a key component of Yoon Suk Yeol's energy policy will be focused on demystifying an energy source shrouded in controversy.

In a country where nuclear fission power stations account for 29 percent of its energy, South Korean presidential policies before Yoon Suk Yeol did everything in their power to drastically reduce this figure. Such was the case under the administration of his predecessor Moon Jae-in. Before it was determined that gross negligence and preventable reactor design errors contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi incident just outside South Korea's border, Moon Jae-in's government decreed such an event should never be allowed to occur on domestic soil.

South Korean Nuclear Energy
Photo: Korea Electric Power Corporation
But in the year 2023, South Korea is on a trend to increase its nuclear energy investment to bring its total energy output to exceed one-third of all produced domestically in South Korea. In an automotive sector with the third largest manufacturer in the world in Hyundai Motor Group and many of the world's largest electronics manufacturing operations, that's going to be quite a bit of power to supply.

The Emirati state is one invested very much in the petrochemical sector, but Yoon Suk Yeol boldly defied conventions and addressed the problem right at the very source. "Korea has declared its 2050 carbon neutrality goal," Yoon proclaimed to the Emirati crowd in Abu Dhabi. "To achieve this goal, we are working to rapidly restore the nuclear power system, which supplies carbon-free electricity."

Should the President's words be taken to heart, it will still be a long, drawn-out boxing match of an affair to bring enough commercial nuclear energy online to wean the nation off foreign oil. But if nothing is done, this dependence could only worsen. According to the World Nuclear Association, roughly 85 percent of South Korea's energy expenditures come from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.

Yoon Suk Yeol boldly declared that with the combined efforts of all the world's superpowers, it will be indeed possible for the UAE and the world to break its reliance on fossil fuels. "If our two countries join efforts in clean energy development, it will not only enhance our two countries' energy security but also will contribute to global energy market stability." the South Korean President noted in his speech.

South Korean Nuclear Energy
Photo: Korea Institute of Fusion Energy
Meanwhile, the results of a collaborative effort between South Korea and the UAE are now seeing the fruits of their labor in the form of the $20 billion nuclear power plant. Using a South Korean-developed APR-1400 pressurized water fission reactor, it's hoped the plant will supply 5380 MW at peak operation. That's up to a quarter of all the UAE's predicted energy expenditures.

As for matters closer to home, South Korea currently operates 25 nuclear fission reactors. Its first reactor, the Hanbit 1, connected to the national grid for the first time in March 1986. But on the more experimental side of things, the Korea Institute of Fusion Energy was able to sustain a 30-second nuclear fusion reaction inside a Tokamak-style fusion reactor similar to the one found at France's ITER facility.

The feat mirrors the successes of other international fusion initiatives. Such as the Joint European Torus (JET) labs in the U.K., which also achieved a similar fusion reaction inside a Tokamak reactor. With so much novel and established nuclear technology at South Korea's disposal, there's every reason to believe Yoon Suk Yeol's zero-carbon dreams could one day come to pass. So long as no outside actors get in the way.
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