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Controversies over nuclear-powered submarines resurface

Posted August. 26, 2016 07:15,   

Updated August. 26, 2016 07:22

Nuclear-powered submarines are holding the limelight as countermeasure against the threat from North Korea’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) for their performance in covertness and striking power that overshadows conventional (diesel-powered) submarines. Conventional models are more likely to be detected by enemy in the process of emerging above the surface of the waters to replenish oxygen for their storage batteries. For proper operation, conventional submarines need to charge their batteries two or three times a day, each for one to two hours, which makes it highly likely for them to be seen and struck by anti-submarine forces such as the maritime operation helicopter. While there are more enhanced diesel-powered submarines, which generate oxygen with fuel cells, even with those, under-water operation can only last a maximum two hours.

By contrast, nuclear-powered submarines can stay under water practically for an unlimited span of time and move twice faster than their conventional counterparts. In other words, South Korea can use nuclear-powered submarines to monitor and track down North Korean submarines armed with ballistic missiles long enough, and in case of emergencies, they can evacuate quickly after striking their strategic target. This explains why some of the most advanced countries are running nuclear-powered submarines as a strategic weapon.

In 2003, the South Korean military had been pushing for a behind-the-scenes project to build three units of 4,000-ton nuclear submarines by 2020 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but the project was suspended after the project details were leaked out. “If the project had not been suspended, two nuclear submarines would have been combat-ready by now, and they would have served us greatly in dealing with the threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” an official from the South Korean Navy said.

South Korea has the necessary technologies to develop small-sized nuclear reactors for 3,000 to 4,000-ton submarines, and it can also conduct uranium enrichment programs with the cap of 20 percent of enrichment levels pursuant to the revision to the Korea-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. Some experts project that South Korea will be able to build a nuclear submarine in the similar class to that of the French submarines such as Rubis (2,500 ton) or Barracuda (4,000 ton), in several years. Hurdles remain, however, such as the expected opposition from China and Russia and the tricky job of persuading the U.S. “During the early 2000s, the South Korean military tried to build nuclear submarines to secure strategic weapons against the North and neighboring countries," said a military official. "Of course, it won’t be easy to persuade the U.S. or cover the costs, but as nuclear threats from the North are extremely worsening, more will endorse the project to counter North Korea.”

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