- Nuclear Energy's Staying Power in South Korea
South Korea, Nuclear Energy, Public Opinion, Fukushima, Nuclear Exports
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This article addresses the uncertainties of nuclear energy in South Korea by analyzing the physical characteristics of the country's nuclear industry, its economic dependence on nuclear exports, and the political pushback to a nuclear drawdown.
The Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan triggered a debate in the 2017 South Korean presidential election over the country's reliance on nuclear energy. After winning the election, President Moon Jae-in affirmed his government's goal to decrease nuclear energy's contribution to total national electricity generation by halting plans for new reactors and eventually phasing nuclear energy out entirely. At the same time, the government increased its emphasis on expanding nuclear technology exports. These seemingly opposed policies have raised questions about the long-term viability of the once-burgeoning Korean nuclear industry as well as the economic and social costs of a nuclear drawdown. Nuclear power will likely contribute to the country's electricity generation for the foreseeable future on account of the industry's characteristics—the relative youth of the reactor fleet, the costs of early decommissioning, and the lack of alternatives in electricity generation, among others—and the political and economic tradeoffs that a significant drawdown would entail.
• Despite Moon's stated goal of drawing down nuclear energy in favor of renewables, the characteristics of the South Korean nuclear and renewable energy industries suggest that nuclear power will remain a large contributor to the nation's electricity generation at least through 2030.
• South Korea's lack of decommissioning technologies—including those related to preparation, decontamination, dismantling, waste disposal, and environmental recovery, as well as storage and disposal of spent fuel—will limit the pace at which reactors are closed, even if reactors are taken offline early.
• Although policymakers arguing for a nuclear energy drawdown believe that they have public opinion on their side, case studies of countries with young nuclear industries suggest that public support for decommissioning is often insufficient to achieve meaningful, near-term reductions of nuclear energy in the national fuel mix. [End Page 84]
Since the initial commercial operation of Kori 1, the first nuclear power reactor in the Republic of Korea (ROK), in 1978, policymakers and citizens have been largely supportive of the country's increasing reliance on nuclear power for electricity generation. Within the last 30 years, South Korea has built 26 nuclear reactors. Currently, there are 25 operating reactors with a net capacity of 23.78 gigawatt electric (GWe). Nuclear power's contribution to total electricity generation has grown to 30% (165 terawatt hours), earning South Korea the designation as one of the most nuclear-dependent nations in the world.1 Throughout this period of industry expansion, successive administrations on different ends of the political spectrum accepted nuclear power as a necessary source of electricity under the conditions of limited domestic energy resources and growing electricity demand. A 2010 OECD report on public attitudes toward nuclear power as a potential contributor in addressing climate change found the South Korean public supportive of nuclear power. The report identified the ROK as the only country with an absolute majority of respondents in support of building new nuclear power plants and one of two countries (with Indonesia) to have a significant majority in support of expanding nuclear power to combat climate change.2
However, Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident profoundly altered the South Korean polity's views of nuclear energy. Prior to the accident at Fukushima, the public debate on nuclear power was discreet and circumscribed to niche interest groups.3 Fukushima expanded participation in this debate, leaving citizens with a common concern for public health and safety as a consequence of national reliance on nuclear power. While the public was relatively ill-informed about nuclear energy—even after Fukushima—it wanted the nuclear industry to slow down development so that it could have a larger say in the decision-making process.4
The public particularly expressed concerns regarding plans to construct and operate reactors near large cities and urban areas. Despite...