By Jane Xie
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - South Korea may struggle to cut its reliance on nuclear power, as a working group has suggested it do, because the country has no natural resources to fill its huge energy requirements, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Tuesday.
Seoul is under pressure to rethink nuclear power following a scandal that started with bogus certificates for cables and snowballed into the indictment of 100 people.
Switching to alternatives such as gas to fire generators may calm safety concerns, especially after Japan's Fukushima disaster, but could cost tens of billions of dollars. South Korea has to import nearly all of the oil, gas and coal that it uses to meet its energy and fuel needs.
"Nuclear power for an industrial country like South Korea is very important so they have very stable and a very predictable energy source," Alexander Bychkov, deputy director general and head of nuclear energy at the IAEA, said in an interview at the Singapore International Energy Week.
"I think (South Korea's) program will not change drastically."
Three of South Korea's 23 reactors are offline due to the discovery of fake safety certificates for plant equipment. Another will be shut on October 30 to inspect weldings related to the safety of a steam generator.
Two others are also out for regular maintenance and a sixth one is shut, awaiting an extension of its 30-year life span. Of six reactors under construction, three have been delayed from start-up, also because of certification issues.
Still, South Korea's nuclear reactors have good operating records, and there are few "economical and ecological reasons" to reduce its nuclear capacity, Bychkov said.
"They have one of the best advanced nuclear programs in the world," he said. "They have a very good industry, a very good system of education, system of control."
Bychkov's comments came a day after the United Arab Emirates' Energy Minister Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui said the UAE was not concerned about the ability of a South Korea-led consortium to deliver a series of nuclear power projects.
"We are confident that they will deliver the project. We have not seen any signs that they cannot deliver the project," al-Mazroui said, also on the sidelines of the conference.
The UAE in 2009 awarded a group led by Korea Electric Power Corp a contract to build four nuclear reactors to meet rapidly rising demand for electricity.
Construction began in mid-2012 on the Barakah-1 reactor, which will be the first serving a Gulf Arab OPEC oil producer when it starts up in 2017.
KEPCO owns Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co Ltd (KHNP), which operates all of South Korea's nuclear reactors.
Talking on Japan's nuclear power, the IAEA official said he expects the country to start operating their reactors again.
Japan has struggled to contain radioactive water at its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, which suffered triple meltdowns and hydrogen explosions following a devastating earthquake in March 2011.
The disaster and its aftermath has led to the complete shutdown of nuclear plants across Japan, forcing the country to rely on more expensive fuels such as oil and gas for its power generation needs.
To address public safety concerns and tackle its power crisis, Japan's ruling party plans to make proposals this month on how to handle Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the embattled operator of the Fukushima plant, and may propose the breakup of the giant utility.
"We know that the new government in Japan supports nuclear. We expect in the near future, the main part of Japan reactors will continue operation again, mainly pressurized water reactors," he said.
(Additional reporting by Seng Lipeng; Writing by Manash Goswami; Editing by Tom Hogue)