In search of sustainable energy solution together

Korean Serenade - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, recently posted a photo taken at night from a satellite on the Korean peninsula, titled “Night and day difference.” He hinted at what happened 70-plus years after a country was divided into half capitalist and half communist. The sharp contrast between bright South and dark North reminded me of the movie “Oppenheimer” I watched last year. The satellite image and the film lay bare another stark difference where North Korea aggressively pursues nuclear weapon capabilities, while the South serves as a model for developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

I vividly remember my visit to Pyongyang in February 2010 which left a lasting impression on the sad reality in North Korea. Witnessing oxen-pulled carts in the streets of a country hell-bent on nuclear armament was surreal. Despite severe energy scarcity and widespread poverty, North Korea’s leadership continues to prioritize nuclear ambitions – a huge hypocrisy.

Having traveled extensively during my tenure at the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General from 2007 to 2014, I observed firsthand the critical importance of energy security worldwide. Energy plays a central role in various aspects of our lives, from fueling economies to achieving Sustainable Development Goals, combating climate change and ensuring global security. Energy poverty continues to affect billions, limiting access to education and prosperity. Sustainable energy is emphasized as crucial for sustainable growth, as highlighted during COP28 in December last year.

The massive blackout in West Visayas at the dawn of the new year rattled the Philippines. While the country stands on the threshold of the upper-middle income country group, the incident should serve as a reminder of the current state of energy. Lack of energy and high electricity cost are key stumbling blocks to the government’s noble endeavors to create a more attractive environment for foreign investors. In my opinion, this is the area where Korea and the Philippines can build a win-win partnership as the two nations mark the diamond jubilee of diplomatic ties this year.

In the past few months, I embarked on a so-called “energy tour.” Starting with my visit to the Cebu coal-fired power plant, run by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), to the Angat Dam operated by Korea Water Resources Corporation (K-Water) and finally to a fact-finding mission to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), my trip covered a variety of power sources, from fossil fuels to carbon-free resources. When the modernization of the Angat Dam is completed in 2025, its capacity for water supply, power generation and flood control will be significantly enhanced. I am proud of the humble yet positive contributions of KEPCO and K-Water for the Philippines’ energy security.

At the COP28, 22 countries with active nuclear industries, including Korea, the US, the UK and France, pledged to triple nuclear powered generation by 2050. Their message is straightforward: nuclear power is the most practical and reliable carbon-free resource in finding sustainable future energy solution.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2024 in Davos, the fast-growing application of AI was a buzz word. It is noteworthy, in this context, that more affordable and greener power supply will be in greater demand in the future AI era. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said that nuclear fusion might be the solution to address the energy needs of powerful AI models like OpenAI’s GPT and Google’s Bard. By the same token, French President Emmanuel Macron outlined his strategy for achieving carbon neutrality and ensuring a sustainable energy provision amidst the increasing energy demands of generative AI. President Macron emphasized that France currently boasts one of Europe’s most affordable, reliable and low-carbon energy grids, with approximately 70 percent of electricity sourced from nuclear power.

In this regard, my recent trip to the BNPP was an eye-opener. BNPP is a sister reactor of Kori-2 plant in Korea. Since its commercial operation in 1983, Kori-2 has run for 40 years without any major incidents. Now it is being temporarily suspended for safety assessment to extend its lifespan, a growing trend among countries employing nuclear power plants.

In fact, if the BNPP had been activated in 1986, the Philippines, as a peace-loving country like Korea, could have become the first and only nation in the ASEAN utilizing nuclear power, and it would have led to a fundamentally different situation in its current energy security. Given the hiatus, it is timely that Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power has offered a feasibility study to commission the BNPP at this juncture.

Nuclear energy has played a significant role in Korea’s development. At present, Korea has 25 operational nuclear reactors, with more planned to be constructed. Korea, which is known for building safe nuclear reactors on time and within budget, also has a proven track-record in transferring nuclear reactors and its technologies abroad, including the Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE. At the 2023 UN General Assembly, President Yoon Suk Yeol articulated his proposal for a Carbon Free Coalition, which aims to promote an active employment of nuclear power and green hydrogen as alternative energy sources to achieve the global Net Zero goal. Indeed, Korea is best positioned to transfer knowhow and technical expertise required for operators and regulators.

The Philippines can be a good partner in this enterprise. President Marcos Jr. announced his vision for the country by introducing a nuclear energy option in its energy mix. Coupled with the signing of the so-called “123 Agreement” between the Philippines and the US, the adoption of the “Philippine National Nuclear Energy Safety Act” by the Congress in November last year was an encouraging development. The Philippines’ participation in the Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels from March 21-22 will allow the country’s energy experts to gain a better understanding of the desirability of the nuclear option as a main source of energy for the foreseeable future.

In the movie “Oppenheimer,” J. Robert Oppenheimer noted, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.” As Korea and the Philippines celebrate the 75th year of bilateral relations this year, I am optimistic that the frontier of our future-oriented partnership will evolve into clean energy and green growth.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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