Behind-the-scenes diplomatic support played a major role in Korea winning a US$40 billion nuclear power plant order from the United Arab Emirates. But diplomatic maneuvering would have had no effect unless Korea had the necessary top-notch design, construction and operation technology.
There has not been a single radioactive leak in Korea since the country began operating its first nuclear power plant in 1978. The operating rate was 93.3 percent, compared to 89.9 percent in the U.S., 76.1 percent in France and 59.2 percent in Japan. Korea can build a nuclear power plant for $2,300 per kilowatt of energy, which is cheaper than the $2,900 charged by France and Japan and the $3,582 the U.S. demands. With a Korean-made nuclear plant it costs $3.03 to generate 1 kWh of electricity, compared to $3.93 with a French, $6.86 with a Japanese and $4.65 for an American facility. Korean builders can also construct a nuclear plant in just 52 months, while the job takes the French 60 months and the American 57 months. In short, Korea has overtaken France, Japan and the U.S. in efficiency and reliability.
When construction began on Korea's first nuclear power plant in Gori, South Gyeongsang Province in 1971, the only thing the country's own builders could do was build apartments for plant workers and haul gravel and other construction materials. Now it has mastered almost the entire technology and exports it. Behind the feat are the efforts and sacrifices of many scientists, researchers and technicians. When Westinghouse of the U.S. was building and testing Korea's first and second nuclear plants, Korean technicians were not even allowed access to key areas and had to learn the ropes from over the shoulders of American engineers. Korean nuclear technicians sent to Bechtel on a training program were kicked out for copying educational materials and sending them back to Korea. A lot of blood, sweat and sheer determination went into Korea mastering the technology.
It was when the third and fourth nuclear plants were being built in Gori that Korean companies got a chance to take part in construction of the main reactor, steam generator, gas turbine and power generator, the engineering process and overall design. The third and fourth nuclear power plants in Yeonggwang, where construction began in 1987, were already a co-production with a Korean standard reactor and U.S.-based Combustion Engineering. Now, Korea is capable of producing 95 percent of the components of a nuclear reactor and is even prepared to sign deals with Bechtel and Westinghouse to teach them new technologies.
The remaining task is to master the skills needed to produce the key codes required in nuclear plant design, as well as in producing coolant pumps and reactor control equipment. They are not only difficult but too expensive to perfect unless Korea can secure enough plant orders to finance the necessary research. That is why the country has been delaying research on those technologies. But with overseas orders opening up, it is time for the final push.