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[Opinion] Renaissance in Nuclear Energy

Posted June. 07, 2008 08:39,   


The 1960s was the golden age of nuclear energy. In 1956, Calder Hall, the world`s first commercial nuclear power station in Britain, came into operation, and as the United States` first nuclear power plant Shippingport Atomic Power Station started operation the following year, atomic energy emerged as a hope for humankind. In the Cold War era, the United States and the now unraveled Soviet Union were in hot competition even for the peaceful use of atomic power. However, after two big nuclear accidents, one in the United States` Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979 and the other in Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, the nuclear energy industry started to decline.

But history repeats itself. Long blamed as a gift from the devil, atomic energy is gaining popularity again, largely due to skyrocketing oil prices and climate change. As there is no visible result in harnessing solar and wind power as alternative energy sources and people find themselves unable to shift to an energy-saving lifestyle, even environmental activists have started declaring their support for nuclear energy one by one. James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory that sees the Earth as an organism, argues that it’s time to break from “green romanticism” and appreciate the value of atomic energy.

No country is more enthusiastic about the return of the nuclear renaissance than France, which has held on to nuclear power plants despite vehement anti-nuclear movements in the 1980s. With 59 commercial nuclear power plants in full operation, France plans to construct one nuclear power station a year beginning in 2012 to replace existing power plants, and is pushing for making inroads into overseas markets. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is at the forefront of this effort. He has visited China and countries in the Middle East and Africa to clinch nuclear power plant export deals. The Unites States, which suspended new construction of nuclear plants since the Three Mile Island accident, is increasing the share of nuclear energy in its energy consumption by operating existing plants at full capacity. Now, attention is being drawn to whether the next U.S. administration will give the green light to the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Korea, which has constantly built up atomic power stations even when the global nuclear energy market was stagnant, is now facing a new opportunity to expand into overseas markets. As the sixth-largest nuclear power generator in the world, Korea is equipped with technologies to develop nuclear reactors that are cost-effective and efficient in terms of operation. However, diplomacy is as critical a factor as technology. Along with entry barriers put up by the three nuclear powerhouses of the United States, France, and Japan, a nuclear energy agreement between the United States and Korea would act as a hindrance for Korea to broaden its global market. The government’s diplomatic ability is badly needed.

Editorial Writer Chung Seong-hee (shchung@donga.com)