Poland must create an entire nuclear energy system, and the power plant will be just the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of which country Poland will cooperate with, it will have to ensure not just accompanying infrastructure and financing, but most of all, knowledge necessary to service and maintain large-scale NPPs. South Korea can show Poles how it’s done – writes Jędrzej Stachura, editor at BiznesAlert.pl.
For years Polish politicians have been debating about the construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP). The leading role that nuclear power is to play in the national energy mix has been waiting for the birth of the first reactor for several decades. Forty springs have passed this year since the start of the construction of the nuclear power plant in Żarnowiec, and only now Poland seems to be closer to a success. The Polish atom is just around the corner, but it needs a helping hand.
The energy sector in Poland has not faced such an important decision in a long time. The choice of a nuclear construction partner will impact the future of the domestic climate policy and international relations. Help can come from one of the potential partners that are at the table – Americans, the French or Koreans, all of whom have exceptional experience in nuclear power. However, the decision must be taken as soon as possible, as the technological, financial and scientific support at this stage will make it possible to build a solid foundation, not only for a nuclear power plant. During a working visit to South Korea, we had the opportunity to see what the construction of a large NPP industry in a country of more than 50 million people entails.
In the Polish media lawmakers, experts and journalists talk about the power plant, its location, sometimes mention the type of reactor. But that’s not all. We forget about the back room, the foundation of every institution, which is headed by a president that just cuts the ribbon.
Poland faces a difficult task. It must create an entire system to facilitate nuclear energy production, and the power plant will be only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of which country Poland will cooperate with, it will have to ensure not just accompanying infrastructure and financing, but most of all, knowledge necessary to service and maintain large-scale NPPs. Production of nuclear fuel, storage of radioactive waste or construction of turbines all require money and good organisation. It is necessary to find the right place, resources and competent people to manage all of this. On this path, Poland will need a guide who will supply components and personnel with experience in working with nuclear power.
The motives for cooperating with the USA or France are obvious. The Americans are natural allies, and the French can help in the European Council. It seems that technology and cost will be the last issues that Poland will take into account when reviewing the offers of these countries. Political issues will be one of the deciding factors. But what can South Korea, which is so far away, offer?
Backstage of the atom. How it’s done in South Korea.
The Koreans assure that even if Poland does not choose them as partners in the construction of the atom, they will want to provide it with access to technology. This means, among other things, the possibility of supplying turbines or nuclear fuel. “If Westinghouse with AP1000 reactors wins the race to build nuclear power plants in Poland, we will not exclude the possibility of Doosan producing components for them,” said Jiseok Lee, senior manager at Doosan Enerbility, during a meeting with Polish journalists. The Koreans can also provide reactor pressure vessels, tank heads, steam generators and main circulation pumps.
South Korea has been in this business since 1957, when it joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and began planning for the construction of power plants throughout the country. The Koreans had to start with research, so the first experimental reactor was launched in 1962. The first nuclear power generating unit on a commercial scale was Kori-1 PWR type with a capacity of 600 MWe. It was connected to the power grid in 1978. It was followed by the Kori 2 (PWR, 675 MWe) and Wolsong 1 (PWR, 622 MWe).
In 2006, the development of the largest nuclear power plant in Korea (its current name is Shin-Kori) began. It is located in the province of Busan on the south-eastern coast of the country. As part of the upgrade, a total of six Shin-Kori reactors are being built, the first pair of which are OPR-1000 designs, and the next two are APR-1400. Reactors 1 and 2 started operation in 2011 and 2012 respectively, 3 and 4 were launched in 2016 and 2019. Two further units, called Shin-Kori 5 and Shin-Kori 6, were launched in April 2017 and September 2018.
The year of 1985 is one of the most important moments in Korea’s nuclear energy. It was at this time that the Korean government decided to reform, streamline the structure of the sector and share competences between national organisations. Following these changes, KHNP (Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power) is still responsible for the supervision of nuclear projects, KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Company) is responsible for the development of domestic reactor design and construction technologies, while Doosan produces the main components. Nuclear research came under the supervision of KAERI (Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute), while KNF (KEPCO Nuclear Fuel) handles the fuel industry.
The Polish journalists were able to see with their own eyes how the nearest environment of a nuclear power plant can be usefully developed. Just a few hundred meters from Shin-Kori is the KINGS University (KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School), which educates a new generation of students in nuclear energy. They will determine the future of nuclear power in South Korea and other countries.
The location of the campus allows the students to gain both theoretical and practical knowledge, since classes are also held at the power plant. Four students from Poland also study at the university. Perhaps one day they will work in the Polish nuclear industry. A visit to such a place makes the visitor aware that an educated staff is a key element of this puzzle.
One of the most important arguments for introducing nuclear energy generation is its low carbon and low environmental impact. Therefore, an important element of Korean nuclear power generation is the final step of the whole process, namely the storage of radioactive waste.
This is handled by KORAD (Korean Agency for Radioactive Waste). South Korea dumps low-and intermediate-level waste from its nuclear power plants there. A modern plant will make it possible to take better care of the environment for the next 60 years.
A small Korea and a big Poland, or the problem of location
There are some advantages to the Korean nuclear strategy in terms of the location of nuclear power plants and associated infrastructure. The area of South Korea is about 100 thousand square kilometers (about three times less than Poland). On this relatively small area (the distance between Seoul and Busan is only 325 km), the Koreans have already placed five power plants (24 reactors). Four of them work: the aforementioned Shin-Kori and Wolsong, as well as Hanul and Hanbit. The latest Cheonji is scheduled to launch in 2026.
A look at the map is enough to see that Korea has good conditions for the construction of such units. Its geographical location and access to the sea allow it to set up power stations along the coast and move ships freely around the territory. The smaller area makes it easier to organise logistics, communications or transport of nuclear fuel (which for safety reasons is transported by sea). Poland has already chosen the location of the power plant and one hopes that the government has taken into account all aspects, including, for example, the difficulties associated with the transport of fuel.
Of course, one can always have doubts about safety. Water is not always an ally, as the Japanese saw in Fukushima. However, the Koreans assure that this event was a lesson learned by everybody, and now nuclear power plants have been adapted to withstand any tsunami. They claim that the reactor covers can withstand a collision with an aircraft and the strongest earthquake.
In this way, the Koreans have created a system that today effectively takes care of the development of the national nuclear energy. Will Poland choose their technology? The answer to this question is due at the end of 2022. Korea is raising its hand high to be picked, but it seems that the Poles are already sitting in the bench with the Americans.
The Asians are willing to cooperate with both to build NPPs in Poland, so in December it may turn out that not a duo, but a trio (Poland-USA-Korea) will be the way to go. The only question is, wouldn’t it be a Korean system in Westinghouse’s attire?