Ep 262: Hee Yong Lee - Former Executive VP, Korea Electric Power Corporation
(0:00-9:30) Early Nuclear Planning in Korea
(Hee Yong Lee explains how Korea initially got involved in nuclear power plant development and the implementation of different reactor technologies)
Q: How did you first come into the nuclear industry?
A: Hee Yong Lee received a Bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering and then joined the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) at the end of 1977. He has worked in various aspects of the industry, including planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and training. Hee Yong has been working on new nuclear builds in foreign countries since 2005. In 2009, KEPCO was awarded the contract for the simultaneous construction of four units in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His first job at KEPCO was in the planning department. At the time, numerous new nuclear builds were in the planning phase. During the 1970’s, Korea experienced a hard time due to the oil crisis as the country was heavily dependent on oil-fired power plants. This led the government to diversify its electricity resources and introduce nuclear power. The president of the Republic of Korea (ROK) was competent about nuclear energy and sent many students to the U.S. and Germany in order to learn nuclear energy. Due to strong leadership, the nuclear policy has been maintained and promoted over the years. In his first role, Hee Yong was responsible for the site surveys and economic evaluation. KEPCO had two departments working together on this endeavor: the nuclear planning department and the national electricity development department. At the time, the optimum level of nuclear power was 30-40% of total electricity capacity, with the remaining 60% made up of thermal and hydro power plants. The national economy of Korea has been rapidly developing at the rate of over 10% per year, creating a lot of demand for electricity. A series of new nuclear build programs were planned and the country was in a hurry to construct nuclear power plants to meet the strong demand. The first unit was introduced by Westinghouse, a 600 MW pressurized water reactor, followed by a CANDU 600 MW class reactor. During construction, the country of Korea decided to incentivize nuclear design at the Yeonggwang site where localization was emphasized. Combustion Engineering (C-E) selected as the technology provider for the standardization and localization of nuclear technology. Since then, Korea has standardized the OPR-1000 (Optimized Power Reactor, 1000 MW) and APR-1400 (Advanced Power Reactor, 1400 MW). When Hee Yong Lee engaged in the long term power planning department in 1994, the economic competitiveness was compared to the large capacity of thermal power plants. They decided to increase the unit capacity in order to enhance the economic competitiveness against the thermal plants, upgrading to 1000 MW units. Korea is a very small country, so there is a lot of difficulty finding the right location for nuclear power plants and there are limited resources, requiring a large scale capacity unit to operate at one site.
(9:30-15:55) Korea’s Nuclear Construction Climate
(How Korea has achieved harmony among the nuclear reactor builders and the role standardization in successful contracting)
Q: What was the next department you worked at in KEPCO and what did you learn as you moved from role to role?
A: After years in KEPCO’s planning departments, Hee Yong Lee was sent to France to learn the fast breeder reactor as part of the long term development plan and the new nuclear build program. Upon returning to Korea, Hee Yong was assigned to a construction site as part of the quality assurance team. His role involved monitoring and overseeing all the processes on site as well as working with subcontractors. There are limited construction resources in Korea. Now, eight different construction companies are used and selected through the bidding process. People inside these construction companies often move between employers, allowing them to know each other well and work well together. Due to this, almost everything on the construction side has been harmonized, in terms of manpower and technical skills. KEPCO standardized the schedule and process, looking at how to expedite the process and for opportunities to modify and upgrade. The fastest construction of a nuclear power plant in Korea was 62 months to commercial operation. The key point is the maturity of detailed design before construction. Another key is standardization, even BOP (balance of plant) specifications and designs. This allows manufacturers to be familiar with the requirements and be ready to manufacture the components.
(15:55-23:51) Stakeholders in Nuclear Power Plants
(A look into priorities of different stakeholders when it comes to nuclear power plant construction and operation, specifically in Korean communities)
Q: What was it like to rise to the top levels of your organization?
A: At KEPCO, the key role is General Manager. Hee Yong Lee spent almost 12 years as the General Manager, responsible for most of the decision-making, but also planning, evaluation, and oversight. A general manager must know the scale, technology and have real experience, training, and qualification in order to make good decisions and report to the top manager. Outside stakeholders, such as the government, universities, and global companies must be kept in dialogue with the utility to find good solutions. The government’s priority is the national interest and wants the achievement, regardless of any difficulties. The utility always requests strong support from the government, which can be conflicting, but there is coordination and organization between the two entities. Strong financial support from the government and other institutions are also needed. Other domestic stakeholders include the local authorities and the communities around the sites. Now in Korea, almost all the authority has been empowered to the local authorities and they have a very strong position against the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants in Korea. The priorities of the local authorities are transparency and safety. The local people have a lot of key interests in the nuclear safety of the operating nuclear power plants. Transparency about small technical problems which don’t involve any release of material must be communicated to ease the worries of the locals. A special environmental monitoring group also monitors the operating power plants. Nuclear power in Korea is still the favorite. Many voices advocate for nuclear power to be the majority of the electricity production, Korea has very limited resources for renewable energy such as solar and wind energy. Many people insist on continued nuclear power in Korea.
(23:51-31:35) Future of Nuclear Globally
(Why Korea’s nuclear development has slowed down and opportunities for bringing nuclear energy to new, developing regions)
Q: What has to happen in order to build more APR-1400’s in Korea soon?
A: Korea’s first two APR-1400 reactors were built at Shin-Kori Units 3 and 4. Following that are Shin-Hanul Units 1 and 2 and Shin-Kori 5 and 6, which are under construction. Shin-Hanul construction has been stopped due to an anti-nuclear government policy. Many people requested the government and opinion leaders to resume the new nuclear build program. If not, construction of APR-1400’s cannot continue. Today, Hee Yong is operating an independent consulting company after retiring from KEPCO. He also works as a committee member, or advisor, for another company. Hee Yong Lee recently published a book titled “Nuclear Korea”. He is also trying to make a platform for Korean vendors to work together for overseas energy projects, including nuclear, renewables, and combined cycle sectors. The main focus is the Middle East, but also possibly some countries in Africa who are willing to implement nuclear energy. Lee wants to share his experience with these countries as they explore nuclear energy. The first step to exploring a nuclear power option is training. They will be promoters of nuclear technology in their country and they will provide a good background of nuclear power to their people. There should also be a new organization to promote nuclear power and the new country will need external support from IAEA or NEA or another professional group. These entities can work together to build a new nuclear build program. The nation’s capacity of electricity will determine which nuclear technology is considered. Hee Yong has worked with South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt, and other countries. Each country was excited to be the first to introduce nuclear power, but face a lot of problems in terms of political support, financing, manpower, supply chain, and national policy. Financing is one of the biggest obstacles to new nuclear plants, but there is no optimal solution yet. In the future, the current operating nuclear power plants will be extended with the life extension license and there will be a push of new nuclear builds with large capacities. Some countries are ready and able to support large capacity reactors right now. The remaining markets will be favorable for small and modular reactors, if SMR’s are developing well and getting licensed.