Recollection of the past: South Korea's story

22 August 2017

In 1960, there was a small boy taking a stainless steel cup in his school backpack each morning to have UN-AID Food Rations at lunchtime. Now that boy is standing in the lecture room as a mentor at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute, to share his experience and knowledge about nuclear energy with 100 fellows from 40 countries. Jaekyu Lee reflects on Korea's progress and its current debate on the future of nuclear power.

In 1960, there was a small country with a GDP per capita of less than USD 100; one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. At that time it had failed to secure a loan of just USD 30 million. The loan was needed to build a fertilizer plant to drive growth in agricultural production and to emerge from poverty that had resulted from three years of war and 36 years of colonization.

Korea in the 1960s
Korea in the 1960s

About 35 years later in 1996 it became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the 2010s, it became one of the top 10 biggest trading nations in the world. They call it a 'miracle', the Han-River Economic Miracle. But nobody thinks this effect came without any cause! In the 1980s, it was a small country struggling for economic development with no domestic natural resources like oil, gas and coal, but strongly driving for self-reliance through nuclear technology.

At that time it knew nothing about nuclear energy, but since then it has grown to become one of the world's major nuclear power plant exporters. At present, four units of her own design, the APR1400 nuclear power plant, are under construction at Barakah in the UAE. They call her story a legend of the global nuclear industry and the role model of nuclear technology self-reliance.

"Favouritism and biased hatred both come from prejudice and excessive self-conviction.

When the future is not considered and the present is emphasized, radical policies might sound reasonable."

But suddenly it has been enveloped in a difficult debate about the future of nuclear power. It is at risk of losing the nuclear industry that it has worked so hard to produce. With that, it could lose the chance to become a top-level country, with years of effort and success being thrown away just as one would throw away an old coat without any regrets.

The state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation (KHNP) made a decision to temporarily suspend construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear plants earlier this month after the new Korean President, Jae-in Moon, called for a temporary halt in line with his initiative to wean Korea off of nuclear energy.

Some KRW 1.6 trillion ($1.4 billion) has been spent so far on construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors, which are nearly 30 percent completed.

Paik Un-gyu, the new minister of Trade, Industry and Energy, backed the Moon administration's energy initiative in his first press conference following his inauguration ceremony. "The government, through its coal-free nuclear-free policy, is preparing for the long-haul, drawing a road map that extends beyond 60 years," he said, addressing concerns that the nuclear-free policy was being rushed. "We will have to undertake the process of gathering public opinion on Shin Kori 5 and 6, but fundamentally, we should not build new reactors and not extend the operations of nuclear plants which have run their course."

Favouritism and biased hatred both come from prejudice and excessive self-conviction. When the future is not considered and the present is emphasized, radical policies might sound reasonable.

The small boy mentioned above is me. The country mentioned above is my motherland, South Korea. These days my heart aches for my dear mother, who used to say to me every morning, whilst putting the stainless steel cup into my backpack: "Honey, keep an open mind always! Be balanced not biased and be proud of yourself always!" On 28 July, I kept the 20th anniversary of my mother's death in my mind.

I can forget injuries, but never forget kindness!

Now I am muttering my mother's words over and over.

Jaekyu Lee

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Jaekyu Lee is former Senior Vice President of KEPCO E&C, builders of South Korea's fleet of 14 nuclear power plants.