Korean atomic scientist Hae-Yong Jeong discusses why nuclear energy is crucial to the survival of the human race.
The scoop: The promise of nuclear power is nothing less than cheap, limitless energy. But for decades, the dream has remained tantalizingly out of reach. Instead, industrialized society has been built on carbon-emitting coal, oil, and natural gas. These fossil fuels are in limited supply, and now threaten our very existence by causing irreparable harm to the global climate. Nuclear is no silver bullet its past is checkered with catastrophe and the potential to turn peaceful energy into weapons of mass destruction. But Hae-Yong Jeong of says that the atom is the key to growing out of our dirty energy habits, and ensuring the long term survival of human civilization
Reilly: Hi Hae-Yong, this is Michael Reilly from Discovery News. Nice to meet you!
Hae-Yong Jeong: Nice to meet you too.
Reilly: So, to begin, tell me a little about yourself for our readers. What is your name and title, and what sort of research are you involved in?
Hae-Yong Jeong: OK! My name is Hae-Yong Jeong working for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute as a principal researcher. My field is safety analysis of nuclear systems and recently I've become highly interested in the energy policy and energy development for future sustainability.
Reilly: And we'll be discussing your recent findings from an analysis in the journal Energy Policy, in which you found that nuclear energy will be a crucial piece of our energy future. Can you describe how you did the analysis, and how you arrived at the conclusion that nuclear will be important for human civilization going forward?
Hae-Yong Jeong: Well, last year I stayed in Aix en Provence in France one year. During the winter, I felt quite cold in the south France. So I became well aware of the influence of climate change and studied about the reason of it and read some interested papers on energy policy and sustainable development. As you know my job is on the nuclear energy so I tried to link nuclear and sustainable development.
Reilly: Right, and what did you find? Why do believe nuclear energy is so important to our future?
Hae-Yong Jeong: In our civilization various types of services are provided based on the fossil energy resources. This is believed to be the main source of pollution and severe climate change now. A key factor for a sustainable future of humankind is how to get energy without pollution. Nuclear energy can supply energy without any air pollution if we control the radioactivity as tight as reasonably achievable and operate it safely using all the available technologies to us.
Reilly: How much of Korea's energy currently comes from nuclear?
Hae-Yong Jeong: About 40 percent of electricity is provided from nuclear. There are total 20 nuclear power plants operating in the South Korea.
Reilly: And what is the general attitude toward nuclear energy? Are people supportive of it? Do they feel it is something that should be developed further?
Hae-Yong Jeong: I don't have any data on it. I feel Korean people are not so negative to nuclear.
Reilly: In America, that figure is about 20 percent, and there is a lot of skepticism around the safety of nuclear energy, as well as fear that it may not be a worthwhile financial investment. What would you say to critics of nuclear energy?
Hae-Yong Jeong: The most important aspect of nuclear is the safety. In Korea, this principle is well respected. And we developed several technologies to shorten the construction period which is good for financial aspect.
Reilly: I see. So, going forward, will it be enough to simply build more reactors that use uranium as a fuel, or will we need new technologies that are as yet unproven? What sorts of new technologies do you think are the most promising, and how soon could they be operating?
Hae-Yong Jeong: If it satisfies the safety goal and we operate it safely, the only remained problem with nuclear energy is related to the spent fuel problem. Some advanced technologies such as a fast reactor technology can minimize the burden of spent fuel by reducing the quantity and toxicity of it.
Reilly: And what do you mean by "fast reactor" technologies? Can you explain that a bit?
Hae-Yong Jeong: In a fast reactor, the fission reaction is maintained by fast neutrons. There are several types of fast reactor concepts in the world. I think the sodium-cooled fast reactor technology is matured enough now. This type of reactor is featured by the inherent safety characteristics. The other important thing is that it can be fueled from the spent fuel of the current fleet of fission reactors.
Reilly: So sodium-cooled reactors use a mixture of molten sodium and spent uranium fuel rods from other reactors as fuel? Do they produce any waste of their own?
Hae-Yong Jeong: In a sodium fast reactor, the fuel is mixed oxide, a kind of ceramics, or metallic type containing Uranium. Sodium is used as a coolant to convey the heat to heat exchangers.
Reilly: In your paper, you mention the possibility of the collapse of human civilization if we do not change our carbon-emitting ways. How much time do we have to make the changes, and is a switch to nuclear energy the only option, or are there others?
Hae-Yong Jeong: In our paper, I mentioned a possible threat to our civilization, actually reported by the Club of Rome. If we don't change the direction of the inertia of our life and fail to make a remarkable breakthrough in technology development, our civilization will be in danger after the middle of this century, I think. But I am not insisting that nuclear energy is the only solution.
Reilly: Right. You indicated that nuclear is more of a 'bridge' -- something that could be used as a short-term solution until technologies like solar power and wind power are matured enough to provide enough energy for the globe.
Hae-Yong Jeong: Right, that is my point.
Reilly: In that case, how quickly -- and how much -- do we need to ramp up nuclear energy production around the world?
Hae-Yong Jeong: I don't think we have to spread the nuclear technology to every region of the planet. The nuclear technology needs a large capital and investment. So the use of nuclear would not be available for most countries. Technologies for clean fossil energy and renewable energy are also very important to us. Nuclear is helpful to the countries who can make it sustainable.
Reilly: I see, so your recommendation is that industrialized nations (the U.S., Japan, France, Korea, etc.) should focus more of their efforts on nuclear at least until the middle of the century?
Hae-Yong Jeong: Exactly.
Reilly: Why not just invest in 100 percent now in wind and solar power and other, non-nuclear renewables, if that's the final goal for evolving our global energy supply away from carbon-emitting technologies?
Hae-Yong Jeong: I think there are two prerequisites for renewable energy: one is to mature the technology itself, and the other is a transition to green economy which supports the globalized production and use of renewable energies. I believe we need more time to have matured renewable energy technologies. Further, the transition to green economy and green industry needs more time. Nuclear energy can supply electricity with minimized influence to environment under the current economic regime.
Reilly: So, given current progress of nuclear energy in industrialized nations right now, how would you rate our chances of successfully switching to a sustainable enegry infrastructure in time to avoid large-scale societal damages brought on by climate change? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or neutral?
Hae-Yong Jeong: Sure I am still optimistic. As you said, a large energy could prevent the path to clean energy like renewables if it is run by a private company. Fortunately, energy policy belongs to the business of the government. So, the role of government is very important for switching to new energy system.
Reilly: And what do you think the consequences will be if we do not make the switch away from carbon-emitting fuels in the next few decades?
Hae-Yong Jeong: If we focus on the economic growth, the world population will reach a maximum point in some future. Then it's possible that our level of welfare would be lowered in most parts of the earth because of the limited food, water, and energy. It could be a disastrous situation.
Reilly: So you favor more intervention from world governments to change the inertia of our energy system?
Hae-Yong Jeong: I don't know that it is intervention. I'd like to say it is a policy.
Reilly: so that's an interesting point. Up until now, economic prosperity has been 100 percent linked to energy use. Do you think that trend can continue, and we'll just switch to different energy sources, or do we need to use less energy as well?
Hae-Yong Jeong: Energy efficiency is as important as energy production, especially in the developing countries. To have technologies for energy efficiency and energy saving means reducing the use of fossil resources and also pollution. The development of sustainable energy resources is the key to decoupling economy from energy, because the energy cartel would not be so influential in that situation.
Hae-Yong Jeong: But I'd like to say that energy is still the basis for economy.
Reilly: I see. Well, I hope that lawmakers have a chance to read your study, and we do proceed toward a less destructive energy future.
Hae-Yong Jeong: Sure, our paper can give some intuition to them.
Reilly: This has been a very interesting discussion. Thank you, Hae-Yong, for taking the time to chat this late in the evening.
Hae-Yong Jeong: I was so happy during the talk. Thank you Michael. Take care.