Fusion in Europe talks to Lee Gyung-Su, former Director of the Korean National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI)

Gyung-Su, you came here to discuss potential collaborations about DEMO?

Lee Gyung-Su

Lee Gyung-Su, picture private

Yes. There is a large gap to bridge between ITER and DEMO and currently no one has the resources to fill that gap alone. But we cannot wait until ITER is done. Instead, we should have a DEMO concept ready by then. At the moment, I view Europe as having the leading edge in the DEMO preparation work among the ITER partners. Traditionally, Korean fusion research has strong ties to the US. Through ITER we learned about the capabilities of Europe. Europe is very advanced, especially in the areas of heat removal, divertor physics and engineering as well as divertor materials. That’s why I visited Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and EFDA.

How is fusion research in Korea organised?

The National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI) is the main institute, but we intentionally design our projects in a collaborative way. We want to get access to the knowledge present in Korean industry and science institutions, like our atomic research institute or groups that work on material research or on hydrogen storage systems. In a way, NFRI acts as facilitator and brings up issues to invite other experts to participate in our programme.

You mentioned that Korean fusion research receives strong support by politics and industry?

Yes, we do, I believe. We aimed for a legal foundation from the very start of the programme. A fusion law authorises an annual budget to us, which lies now at 250 million USD. What helps us is our good track record: KSTAR was a very difficult project and there were large doubts. But we were successful and our industry delivered on time and in good quality. That is an important aspect, because from the start we wanted to build KSTAR according to industrial standards. With these credentials, we moved on to ITER and now to DEMO.

Why does Korea support fusion so strongly? Is it a matter of securing energy supply?

Energy is important, but energy alone is not the answer. Korea does not expect to solve a problem alone which other nations have tackled for decades and not succeeded yet. Another reason lies in the Korean society. Korea successfully became a technology nation in the fields of electronics, telecommunication, automobile, ship-building, and steel. Now we want to advance as a science nation. Korea is a small country and our R&D budget is limited -– we have to carefully select which projects we make our avenues to scientific excellence. Fusion is one of them.

In Europe, we find that it takes some effort to get young people interested in a fusion career. What is the situation in Korea?

It is similar. When I studied physics, this field was regarded higher than even medicine or law. That has changed, like in many other countries. We are hoping to attract the people that are best in their fields by offering challenging and advanced development programmes. If scientists excel with a research project that was initiated by fusion, they will support us.

Is the Korean public aware of fusion energy? What is its opinion of the field?

Koreans are very well educated. And we are proud. When KSTAR worked, the public was proud of that success and wanted to know more about it. I believe that this is the way to go in communication with public in general. Most scientists want to teach people, but in my opinion, that never works. You have to get people interested and then they will seek information with their own initiatives.

Lee Gyung-Su studied and worked at US fusion laboratories before he returned to Korea in 1991 to contribute to the start of a national fusion programme. He oversaw the design and construction of the fusion experiment KSTAR and led Korean participation in the ITER Project. Lee is currently leading the Korean DEMO activities and came to Europe in February 2013.