Will this year’s election decide the fate of nuclear energy in Korea?

Posted on : 2022-01-16 09:02 KST Modified on : 2022-01-16 09:02 KST
As we face the ongoing climate crisis, bold policies on nuclear energy are needed now more than ever
International environmental group Greenpeace carries out a performance in which it asks passersby to cast a mock vote for climate crisis responses on Thursday in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun neighborhood. (Kim Tae-hyeong/The Hankyoreh)
International environmental group Greenpeace carries out a performance in which it asks passersby to cast a mock vote for climate crisis responses on Thursday in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun neighborhood. (Kim Tae-hyeong/The Hankyoreh)

I first went to Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, in August of 2020 to meet locals protesting the construction of transmission towers in their town as a reporter for the Hankyoreh’s Saturday edition. It felt as if I had stepped into a foreign country, the atmosphere of the town dark and somber. It was here that swathes of land were being put forth to run transmission lines from the Shin Kori nuclear power plant in Ulsan towards the greater Seoul area to serve the metropolitan area’s energy needs.

Though the power lines in Miryang were the largest and thickest of their kind, transmitting electricity at the high voltage of 765kV, the town was not populous enough to consume even a fraction of the energy passing through its borders, nor any reason to do so. As someone who was born and raised in Seoul, I viscerally felt the energy inequality that had driven the town’s residents to become fighters for their land my first night at Miryang.

Though many urban residents remember the movement protesting the construction of transmission towers in Miryang as beginning in the 2010s, the struggle was preordained earlier on, when administrations consistently instituted energy policies that set the tone for the expansion of nuclear power plants in South Korea. Due to decisions made decades ago, the Moon Jae-in administration also had to start a public discussion in 2017 regarding whether construction of reactors Shin Kori No. 5 and Shin Kori No. 6 should be resumed.

This goes hand in hand with why the percentage of nuclear power in South Korea’s energy mix will significantly decrease only after around 2030 despite the Moon administration’s promise to phase out the energy source. Considering how energy policy requires deeply involved processes, from location allocation to costly persuasion of local residents who will be most affected by the construction of these facilities, governments should make farsighted physical, economic and psychological plans in regard to energy. How they go about it can either resolve or worsen inequality.

Nuclear power encompasses the most complex and intricate aspects of energy policy. It arguably poses the trickiest problems to resolve out of any energy policy issue, with considerations such as location allocation, safety, and economic feasibility. Though the Moon administration promised to phase out nuclear power, it is no different from the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations in that it is actively expanding its nuclear power plant export list.

Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate who once talked of phasing out nuclear energy, has since mentioned the possibility of resuming construction of reactors No. 3 and 4 at Shin Hanul nuclear power plant. Various environmental and climate organizations also have differing attitudes about the speed and direction of phasing out nuclear power.

With demands for a reduction of reliance on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas increasing in response to climate change, nuclear energy and renewable energy are vying for the spot of key energy source in South Korea. According to data from the Korean Electric Power Corporation, last year’s energy consumption in South Korea was powered by coal (35.6%), nuclear energy (29%), natural gas (26.4%), and renewable energy sources (6.8%). How to come about a reasonable energy mix of coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy has become a matter of survival in the current era in which we face a climate crisis.

The new year will require a new answer to the question of nuclear power. Just days into 2022, the European Union announced its plans to classify both nuclear energy and renewable energy as clean energy, also revealing the rough draft of its green taxonomy that would assist financial investments to these clean energy sources. South Korea’s green taxonomy, announced before that of the EU, did not include nuclear energy in its list of clean energy sources. Regardless, this may change at any point depending on international trends.

The upcoming presidential election will decide the future of nuclear power in South Korea. The first question that must be answered regards where nuclear power plants may be built. Considering that South Korea has the highest density of nuclear reactors in the world, one might conclude that large-scale nuclear power plants should no longer be built in the country; however, the nuclear energy industry argues that renewable energy plants like solar power and wind power plants cannot be free from the same consideration. Small modular reactors can be an alternative, but further technological developments are needed for them to be a reality.

Though industrial considerations of economic feasibility such as construction costs and maintenance costs should be made for each energy source, safety, especially as it concerns nuclear power, may be the greatest standard by which regular citizens debating the future of energy in South Korea make their judgments. If one can trust in the absolute safety of scientific technologies, one may be able to trust a presidential candidate arguing for an overthrow of a nuclear phase-out policy based on science, not some amateurish rationalizing.

Nevertheless, nuclear power is an issue that should be approached with caution, as doubt may still linger in the minds of the public after Chernobyl and Fukushima. The Hankyoreh asks its readers: what do you envision for the future of energy in South Korea?

By Choi Woo-ri, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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