Puerto Rico, South Korea and the Promise of Nuclear Power
Poor, bankrupt and a crumbling infrastructure – I’m sorry to start with such a dire picture but unfortunately these words could easily describe Puerto Rico’s current socio-economic status. Now, about 60 years ago, these words could easily describe the socio-economic status of another country: this was South Korea. As an engineer working in the nuclear industry, I have always been fascinated of how South Korea rise from these circumstances to become a world leader in nuclear energy. Who would bet on the Koreans in the late 50’s for such ambitious program? Who would bet on Puerto Rico today to rise up and lead as an energy producer for the Caribbean and Latin America? Hence my point I want to present to my good friends across the US nuclear industry – if nuclear power worked for South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, so could today’s modern state of nuclear technology work for Puerto Rico to rise from the island’s current dire situation. Let me start by sharing with you what was the catalyst to Korea’s nuclear movement. I promise you, this could soon change the conversation from Puerto Rico’s current crisis to Puerto Rico’s majestic potential.
Let’s start by acknowledging the vision and enthusiasm of Korea’s leadership to convert Korea into a nuclear energy producer despite the circumstances. Think of all the negatives in the late 50’s. First, the war had left South Korea bankrupt and with no civil infrastructure. During this time South Korea had an income per capita of about eighty dollars . This was lower than that of sub-Saharan and Latin American countries of the time . Now add the fact that South Korea lacked natural energy resources such as coal and natural gas. This made the country heavily dependent on fossil fuel exports from North Korea and the United States. In brief, South Korea was a devastated, forgotten state, far from being a world economic power. Despite this reality, then President Rhee Syngman had the vision and enthusiasm for the use of nuclear power to develop South Korea’s energy infrastructure. Now, here comes my favorite part of the story.
History shows that it wasn’t until the visit and persuasive prowess of a renowned American engineer that Rhee’s vision officially materialized. This engineer was Walker Lee Cisler, a mechanical engineer and founding member of the National Academy of Engineering in the US. What makes this story interesting was Cisler’s main attraction argument to President Rhee. His main argument regarding nuclear power over fossil fuel was that its dependence on uranium fuel is minimal while its dependence on high-tech human resources is enormous . History has proven Cisler right. Upon the immediate action from President Rhee and a well-thought training agenda, South Korea became a self-sustained country with a world dominance in nuclear technology.
Now let’s draw the parallel and the potential for Puerto Rico. As with South Korea in the late 50’s, it is hard to imagine present day Puerto Rico rising as a local economic power and beacon of energy self-sustainability. However, regardless of the island’s tough circumstances, there are several aspects which could play for Puerto Rico’s advantage to replicate South Korea’s success story.
First, let us consider the argument from Cisler on the need for brain power and human resources. Cisler’s main argument which helped launch a massive nuclear program was in direct relation to the technical capability of engineers and scientist rather than the dependence on natural resources. The Korea of 1950’s invested heavily in training. Today, it is worth noting that a considerable percentage of the US nuclear workforce is composed of people originally from Puerto Rico – from industry leaders and scientists to skilled labor. This represents a significant reason that Cisler’s case can be strategically replicated today for Puerto Rico.
Another interesting argument here is that Mr. Cisler encompasses the case where a highly technical and self-driven engineer (rather than a financier) takes on the challenge to persuade policy makers and politicians to radically change a country’s energy infrastructure. The fact that he was an engineer by training most probably allowed him to persuade President Rhee on the in-depth technical challenges for a nuclear program. Today, the young workforce in nuclear understands the challenges and the technological advances that could make the example of Mr. Cisler replicable for countries such as Puerto Rico.
In this context, we could point out to the promise of the next generation reactors to tackle well-known technological challenges such as nuclear waste, safety and cost of construction. Companies such as Transatomic, Terrapower and NuScale are at the forefront of the development of new technologies to tackle such challenges. In addition, today’s advances in risk quantification methodologies allows for a better understanding of plant vulnerabilities against site-specific hazards. These and many other advances in new reactor technologies reinforce the message for engineers to persuasively communicate with policy makers, such as Cisler did in the 50’s with President Rhee.
Now, there’s a key distinction between the South Korea of the 1950’s and present day Puerto Rico. In the 60’s, South Korea was governed by an authoritarian regime. This allowed President Rhee, after being convinced by Cisler, to unilaterally trigger an entire country’s nuclear energy program. In contrast, today Puerto Rico is governed by a democratically elected government. Here, engineers will face the challenge of not only persuading policy makers but also working to change public perception towards nuclear. As Everett Rogers outlines in his classic Diffusions of Innovation Theory, in today’s societies, technologies are likely to be adopted in mass only by means of a holistic approach for both leaders and the general public. In other words, our in-depth knowledge of the technological advances in nuclear power has to be accompanied by effective and evidence-based public engagement strategies.
I have presented the case of how South Korea launched a successful nuclear energy program despite its lack of natural resources and poor socio-economic status following the Korean War. This movement materialized in part due to the persuasive argument from Walker Lee Cisler to President Rhee using nuclear power’s greatest asset – heavy reliance on human capital. Puerto Rico currently enjoys a strong and considerable workforce within the US nuclear sector. This reality, coupled with the promise of modern nuclear reactors and evidence-based public engagement strategies, could set the launch pad for a successful program similar to that of South Korea.
This is a call for action from our young generation of engineers within the US nuclear industry. I’m confident there are many Cislers within our industry hungry for new and unique challenges. As proven by Cisler, there couldn’t be a better persuader than a highly technical engineer to communicate to policy makers and the general public the option of modern nuclear technology. This is for us - the young engineers in nuclear. I invite you to comment and share ideas on this blog. Perhaps our conversations could ignite the next army of Cisler’s to take action for Puerto Rico.
_________________________________  Seung-Hun Chun, (2010) "Strategy for Industrial Development and Growth of Major Industries in Korea"  Kim, Sunhyuk and Wonhyuk Lim (2007) “How to Deal with South Korea”, The Washington Quarterly vol. 30 (2).  Nuclear Silk Road, Byung-Koo Kim’s