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Nuclear turned South Korea into an Asian tiger - scientist

Jul 23 2017 16:00
Anthonie Cilliers*

Cape Town - I am currently on a scientific visit in the Republic of Korea better known as South Korea, I am visiting a nuclear engineering department to learn more about the practical training techniques they employ to educate and train young nuclear professionals. In particular I am interested in their small zero power teaching reactor, but more about that on another day.

The topic of this opinion piece is something that surprised me, yet I should not be surprised. I have been using South Korea as an example of how a country can turn its own fortunes around. Yet, when I got here I could not believe my own example.

In 1957 South Korea was the second poorest country in the world. It has no natural resources apart from the Ginseng plant. Yet somehow, South Korea's economy was one of the world's fastest-growing from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, and South Korea is still one of the fastest-growing developed countries in the 2000s, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, the other three so-called Asian Tigers.

Today the country ranks as the 11th nominal and 13th purchasing power parity GDP in the world. South Koreans refer to this change as the Miracle on the Han River.

To answer this, we need to realise that the South Korean economy is heavily dependent on international trade, and in 2014, South Korea was the 5th largest exporter and 7th largest importer in the world.

This is where my surprise came in. Taking a bus from the airport to the hotel I was transported in a Hyundai bus, 6 out of 10 cars on the road are Hyundais, 2 are Kias, and I manged to see a few German cars. (For those that are not that interested in cars, Hyundai and Kia are Korean designed and manufactured vehicles).

Looking around me at the hotel, the university I am visiting as well as the department store I where I bought gifts for the family, I only see Samsung and LG products (again Korean) – washing machines, tumble dryers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, microwave ovens, refrigerators, computers and cellular phones, the list goes on.

This in itself is not surprising; we own a few of these branded products ourselves back in South Africa and we see Hyundai and Kia vehicles on the road all the time (increasingly). Then it hit me.

Every single product I can see around me in this country, is made in this country! That is also what makes them the 5th largest exporter in the world. A country without any natural resources? Well, there is the answer to why they are the 7th largest importer. Did I mention unemployment is at 3.6%?

Nuclear electricity - the key ingredient

So, what was the key ingredient behind this incredible transformation? You guessed it, nuclear electricity. In the 1950s the people of South Korea realised they had a lack of indigenous natural resources and needed a stable energy supply source. This left only one option: nuclear power, a semi-indigenous energy resource.

During this time, I might add, South Korea was a young, independent nation plagued by political instability and insufficient domestic private capital (sound familiar?).

Park Chung Hee, the president from 1963 until 1979,  had other plans. He recognised that a capable workforce was a key for the development of nuclear energy, and made manpower training priority number 1, basically pre-investing in manpower training.

The strategy then was simple: to increase nuclear energy fraction, to lessen the technical dependency from foreign countries, to enhance the economics of nuclear power plant and build considerable local industries experience.

See what is not mentioned in this strategy? The prophets of doom. They recognised where they were and moved from there. They partnered with the US to support the programme and off they went.

The ultimate target: overall self-reliance (95%) by 1995 with full project execution and technology transfer; ultimately developing a joint design by a well-educated workforce; having well defined clear division of responsibilities and gradual technology improvement by R&D support.

With hindsight, they are clear on the key success factors – they needed strong policy and support from government and participants with a passion for the challenge (again no mention of the prophets of doom). They needed to develop qualified technical manpower and R&D support.

Today South Korea is building nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates on schedule, on budget (at less than $4 000 per installed KW) and we should see the first unit commissioned this year.

“Yes”, I hear the naysayers say, “but this is South Korea, we don’t have the culture or the work ethic”. Well, first of all I reject this level of cynicism outright. Secondly, do they mean to tell me that the second poorest country in the world, one day woke up with the culture and work ethic they have today?

A country that changed its own fate

This is a story of how a country decided to change its own fate, how it entered the G20 countries in 2010 and today is knocking on the door of the number 10 spot, it is a rags to riches story. It is a story that inspires me. Most importantly, it is not a “model” of what we hope to achieve in the future, it is a real-world example of what we can achieve in our future.

Today we hear stories that the current president of Korea announced the phasing out of nuclear power in favour of natural gas. When I asked my hosts about it, they simply shrugged and said I have to remember that he is under immense political pressure from the private sector, and “when it comes to energy, the private sector is looking at short-term profits, not for what is good for the country in the long run”, then in a typical South Korean fashion they continue with their work.

One day, I hope to walk into our house surrounded by mostly South African-made products, to drive a South African car, and I hope that the rest of the world are buying our products. I hope to see South Africa on top of the world, with the rest of the African countries trailing slightly behind.

I hope to see the people of our country working. I think I have seen what can be achieved, but it has to start with the first step. The first step to the (second) miracle on the southern tip of Africa.

* Dr Anthonie Cilliers is the programme manager of nuclear engineering at the School of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at North West University.

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