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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea's retired reactor faces herculean decommissioning process

All Headlines 09:00 June 15, 2018

By Kim Eun-jung

BUSAN, June 15 (Yonhap) – Building a nuclear power plant is neither easy nor cheap. And so is decommissioning as large quantities of dangerous radioactive waste must be safely removed and stored far away from people.

South Korea has built indigenous nuclear power plants at home and abroad based on decades of know-how and expertise, and it is now stepping into uncharted territory of decommissioning work after permanently closing the Kori-1 reactor a year ago.

The Kori-1, located on the northeastern outskirts of Busan, the country's second-largest city and No. 1 port, was officially retired on June 19, 2017, after 40 years of commercial operation.

Since the nuclear facility went offline, all radioactive materials and waste products have had to be managed in the safest possible manner. The process involves the removal of fuel, the complicated dismantling of the plant and equipment, the decontamination of numerous structures and components, and the eventual demolition of all associated buildings.

A year after all operations were halted, engineers are still working around the clock inside the main control room of the reactor on the scenic southeastern coast, though with far fewer staff, to keep the highest-level security facility operating safety.

The Kori-1 reactor in Gijang County, Busan, was permanently shut down on June 19, 2017, after 40 years of commercial operation. (Yonhap)

"Turbines and power generators used to produce a lot of noise and heat, but now with operations halted, this machinery room is quiet," Park Ji-tae, director general of the Kori-1, told reporters who visited the closed plant. "We are currently focusing on safe management of the spent fuel until a permanent storage facility is available."

All of the nuclear fuel was removed from the reactor and placed inside the plant's on-site cooling pool, which serves both to shield the radiation and keep the rods from heating up. The pool is robustly constructed having used reinforced concrete with steel liners and is designed to withstand earthquakes, floods and even man-made tampering.

Though the power generator stopped, ventilation and a filter system will operate normally until June 2022 to safely manage the interim storage.

"Ahead of the dismantling of the reactor, we have to cool down the spent fuel in a water depository for five years," Park said. "We use water as it is a really good radiation shield. Even if you walk around the water storage, you don't have to worry about radiation exposure."

Decommissioning, like construction, needs a detailed plan based on the checking of safety details. This is needed to prevent risk of radioactive contamination that can imperil the lives of future generations.

From the United States to Germany and Japan, plans to build special storage facilities for the highly radioactive fuel rods have hit political roadblocks or faced backlash from locals who don't want toxic waste in their backyards. Only Finland has been able to issue a construction license for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository.

The Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) said it plans to draw up a decommissioning plan by next year and get approval from the government by June 2022. The dismantling process is expected to take at least 15 years and cost 719.4 billion won (US$637.3 million) until 2032, which could increase to reflect inflation and interest rates, according to the KHNP.

A water storage facility for spent fuel from the Kori-1 is shown in this photo taken Oct. 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Despite the challenges, the state utility firm said it will collaborate with the local industry and research institutes to develop its own technologies over the next decade to move forward with the closure of other plants that will go offline in due course.

"We have acquired 58 commercial technologies needed for decommissioning the Kori-1 reactor," said No Ki-kyung, who is in charge of the Kori power plant. "We additionally need to master 17 more skills. So far, we have developed one and plan to complete the process until we start the dismantling process in 2022."

Out of 24 reactors that generate about 30 percent of the nation's power generation, 11 reactors will be retired one by one by 2030 as their operational life cycles expire under President Moon Jae-in's nuclear phase-out policy.

The move was in line with the global trend of pulling away from nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, increasing the pie for the decommissioning sector.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 34 nations have built 611 reactors and 449 were in operation as of April 2017. Among 160 reactors permanently shut down, the decommissioning process has been completed for 19 and is currently under way for 141.

While it's just beginning the lengthy, and costly work, the KHNP said it will strive to achieve its goal of acquiring the expertise needed so it can undertake such operations abroad. The company wants to provide comprehensive energy solutions, ranging from building to decommissioning nuclear power plants.

"Though the hardware business is the firm's cash cow right now, it's time to start making efforts to become a company that can provide consulting services and big data, based on 35 years of business know-how, to emerging nations," KHNP CEO Chung Jae-hoon said in a recent meeting with reporters.


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