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South Korea develops growing appetite for U.S. nuclear plants

In the immaculate control room of the nuclear reactor of Unit No. 1, Korean engineers brim with the heady optimism their American counterparts felt before the U.S. nuclear power industry stumbled. In the last 10 years, Korea has increased its dependence on nuclear energy from 7 percent to 54 percent, giving Korea the highest per capita use of nuclear energy in the world.

At the same time, since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, not a single new nuclear plant has been purchased by an American electrical utility, and Westinghouse and Combustion Engineering _ two of the major American nuclear firms _ have not sold a plant anywhere in the world, except South Korea.

"If we were not able to sell over here we would have had few alternatives," said Glenn McCoy, head of Combustion Engineering's Seoul office.

Two new plants are already under construction at Yonggwang, on Korea's southeast coast, 160 miles from Seoul. Contracts are expected to be signed this year for three more nuclear plants, bringing South Korea's total to 14 nuclear power plants.

That's just the beginning. A recent study conducted for the Korea Electric Power Corp., the state-run utility, forecast the need for 55 nuclear power plants by 2031 just to keep pace with the rising energy demand created by the country's economic growth. Electricity use jumped by more than 10 percent last year for the fourth consecutive year.

By nearly all accounts, South Korea's nuclear power program has worked well _ so far.

Supporters of new nuclear plant construction outnumbered opponents 58 percent to 34 percent in a Gallup Korea poll conducted for a pro-nuclear association last September.

"With enough time," said Lee Hee Sung, Yonggwang's deputy plant manager, "I can persuade anybody about nuclear power."

But South Korea's push to build nuclear plants completely on its own by 2000 may be moving too far too fast, according to foreign engineers in Seoul who are responsible for transferring nuclear technology to Korean firms.

"We wouldn't feel comfortable turning the reins over to the Koreans and they wouldn't take them," said McCoy of Combustion Engineering, which agreed to turn over its nuclear technology as part of the 1986 contract to build the two new Yonggwang plants. "They know that they're not ready."

The government's nuclear inspectors stationed at the Yonggwang plant lack the training and experience to spot dangers themselves, and often wait to be told of problems, utility operators said. Last month, the government hired 200 inspectors to try to increase its oversight capabilities.

Kenneth Cohen, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission official who now serves as counselor for scientific and technological affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said, "They've had a better operating history than we do.

"We'll see in the next few years whether South Korea's system is stretched too thin," he said.

Nuclear waste is fast outstripping the on-site storage capacity at the nuclear plants, and as the number of plants proliferates, so will the waste. Local opposition has already delayed construction of a permanent nuclear waste disposal dump on the crowded Korean peninsula.

In Yonggwang, a farmer pushed an empty cart along a dirt road nearly in the shadow of the twin reactor domes.

"I don't know exactly what radioactive waste is," said the farmer. "I just heard that it is bad."

If South Korea's nuclear build-up is to continue, the dump must be completed by the time on-site storage for low- and medium-level radioactive waste is exhausted in 1995. A site for highly radioactive waste must be ready in 1997.

"To continue nuclear power in Korea, we need to secure the site," said Han Pil Soon, president of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, the government's nuclear research and development facility. "We have to solve that."

Han and other government officials are worried that local opposition around nuclear sites could grow into a nationwide movement.

"Our country does not have any natural energy resources so what else can we do?" he said. "Nuclear power is essential for Korea. The only problem is public acceptance."

Keeping public support will be much more difficult in South Korea's newly democratic environment. Its nuclear program was established under successive regimes that considered criticism of nuclear energy subversive. Now, that has changed.

A coalition of environmental groups claims to have gathered 200,000 signatures against the construction of new plants, and is linking the anti-nuclear issue to a larger anti-American agenda.

"The people don't want them," said Choi Yul, head of the Korea Anti-Pollution Movement. "In the United States, there are no nuclear plants constructed, but U.S. companies want to construct them in Korea."

The nine nuclear plants currently in operation worked at more than 77 percent of capacity last year, compared to 63.5 percent for plants in the United States. The Korean units averaged one-third fewer unscheduled shutdowns than U.S. plants. And unlike in the United States, where nuclear costs have soared, the electricity Korea's plants generated was cheaper than power produced by coal or oil.