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South Korea to extend lifespan of Wolseong nuclear power plant units 2, 3 and 4

S. Korea moves to revitalize nuclear energy as AI boom drives up electricity demand

South Korea will begin the process of extending the operating lifespan of Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant Units 2, 3 and 4, which previously had been on track for closure within the next two to five years. This means that all ten nuclear reactors, initially scheduled for gradual shutdown by 2030 following the expiration of their 30 to 40-year operating license periods under the former Moon Jae-in administration, are set to undergo the process of extending their lifespan.

An official from the nuclear industry said, “Extending the lifespan of nuclear plants, which were scheduled for shutdown, is an important step in moving away from the previous administration’s nuclear phase-out policy.”

“Given that Korean reactors are well managed compared to most other countries, extending their lifespan to 70 to 80 years is not a problem,” said KAIST professor Jeong Yong-hoon.

State-run energy company Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) will submit a report on the radiation impact and safety of the Wolseong units to the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, a regulatory body, according to sources in the nuclear industry on Mar. 31. Submitting the report this month marks the first step in the process to extend operations, as the 30-year licenses of these units were set to expire one after the other, starting with Wolseong Unit 2 in 2026.

Prolonging the lifespan of nuclear plants from 40 years to 70 to 80 years is becoming increasingly common worldwide as the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI), data centers, and electric vehicles (EVs) is driving up electricity demand. As of the end of last year, 259 out of the world’s 438 active nuclear reactors received approvals for extending their lifespan. Korea was late to join this trend as the former Moon administration, committed to a nuclear phase-out, had previously opted to decommission ten reactors by 2030.

Extending the lifespan of a nuclear plant requires following a set procedure, including submitting a safety assessment report two to five years before the operating license expires.

For instance, the Gori-2 nuclear reactor, whose license expired in April last year, would have had to submit a safety assessment report by April 2021, two years in advance, to qualify for an extension. But KHNP only initiated the extension process in April 2022, after the presidential election. As a result, the Gori-2 reactor has been out of operation since April last year. Similarly, the extension process for the other reactors has also been postponed.

KHNR has been boosting its workforce since the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration vowed to restore the nuclear ecosystem and officially resumed operations of nuclear plants. This includes establishing a new division overseeing the long-term operation of nuclear plants in late 2022 and a dedicated 40-person research center focused on sustaining the operation of these power plants.

The Gori-2 reactor is expected to resume operation by June next year following a year-long review by the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission to extend its operation. Gori units 3 and 4, initially scheduled for shutdown in September this year and August next year, respectively, are slated for reactivation by June 2026. Regarding Hanbit Units 1 and 2 and Hanwool Units 1 and 2, KHNR has been engaging with local communities before applying for operational changes in May and December, respectively.

Experts and industry insiders anticipate the continued operation of nuclear plants will alleviate the current shortage of work in the sector and help restore the nuclear ecosystem. This is particularly significant as work related to overseas nuclear plant orders, and new nuclear plant construction is not expected to be in full swing for another five to ten years.

“The industry stands to benefit from the workload to extend operations and refurbish already existing reactors until work related to big-time international deals ramps up and becomes a driving force in the market,” said an industry insider.

Delays in extending operational licenses, which could lead to reactor shutdowns, would require shifting to a costly alternative of relying on liquefied natural gas (LNG) for power generation, thereby increasing the national energy cost burden. This has prompted calls to speed up the review process for extending the operation of nuclear plants.

Source: The Chosun Daily