South Korea has been trying to develop its nuclear energy industry over half a century. Insufficient energy sources, increasing domestic energy consumption, and rising oil prices in the 1970s were significant drivers that turned South Korea into a nuclear energy producer. Today, the country runs 24 nuclear reactors in four nuclear power plant sites, the second highest number of reactors among Asian countries after Japan and fifth highest in the world. Despite the contribution of nuclear energy to the South Korean economy, however, the country is currently facing mounting domestic concerns over its pro-nuclear energy policy.
In a local referendum held in October 2014, an overwhelming majority of the residents in Samcheok, a small coastal city in Gangwon province, rejected the South Korean government’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in the city. Since Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima and South Korea’s 2013 scandals over fake safety certificates for nuclear equipment, South Koreans have begun to take nuclear safety issues more seriously, which in turn has prompted a growing anti-nuclear power sentiment. A series of scandals and accidents in South Korea’s nuclear power plants have focused public attention on the effects of radioactive materials on the health of the residents who live near the country’s four nuclear power plants. Last year, a South Korean court ruled that the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., a state-run nuclear power plant operator, was responsible for the thyroid cancer suffered by a plaintiff, who has lived 7.7 km away from the Kori nuclear power plant over the past 20 years. Since then, more than 500 thyroid cancer patients living close to the nuclear power plants in South Korea have been preparing a joint legal action against the company.
Notwithstanding the anti-nuclear sentiment, nuclear energy as a share of total electricity generated increased to about 30 percent in 2014, and the South Korean government is currently constructing four new nuclear reactors with eight more being planned. Standing firm on its nuclear power plant projects, the South Korean government regarded the Samcheok referendum as not legally binding, and this position remains unchanged. Under the Second Basic National Energy Plan for 2015-2035, South Korea appears to have few options but to stick to its original plan of building more nuclear power plants, as the 2015-2035 energy plan was based on the assumption that it could not avoid raising its dependence on nuclear power.
Critics say that the government overestimated future electricity demand and underpriced electricity. According to the Sixth Basic Supply-Demand Plan for Electricity (2013-2027), South Korea will use more electricity per capita than the United States in 2024. The high population density in South Korea could translate into lower demand for electricity per capita. Moreover, estimates of electricity demand are based on cheap prices for electricity; the government calculated that the rate of increase in electricity prices in the coming years would be one third of the inflation rate. Some newspapers in South Korea report concerns about rising electricity bills as a result of a decreasing reliance on nuclear power. Still, it is interesting to note that 65.6 percent of respondents in a 2013 poll were willing to pay a higher electricity bill if it meant fewer nuclear power plants.
The Seventh Basic Supply-Demand Plan for Electricity (2015-2029) released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in July 2015 does not reflect the growing public concerns about nuclear energy. Arguing that nuclear energy is a necessary source for reducing greenhouse gases and contributing to the global response to climate change, the South Korean government adheres to its original plan to continuously rely on nuclear energy.
South Korea’s current pro-nuclear energy policy contrasts sharply with Germany’s decision in the post-Fukushima era. Germany shut down eight nuclear reactors in 2011, announced plans to close all reactors by 2022, and increased the role of renewable energy sources.
Why can’t – or won’t – South Korea follow Germany’s example? Apart from its insufficient domestic energy sources, leading to a heavy dependence on imported sources, South Korea appears to be unable to simply abandon a 50-year nuclear policy. The government’s efforts to develop nuclear energy industry began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when then President Park Chung-hee, father of incumbent President Park Geun-hye, was promoting export-oriented heavy and chemical industry. As part of his “self-reliance” strategy, Park sought to make South Korea less dependent on external powers, particularly the United States, both economically and militarily. Along with his efforts to develop nuclear weapons in the 1970s, he believed that investing in nuclear energy would be important and rewarding for the future of South Korea, because of nuclear technology’s dual-use characteristics. Today, South Korea no longer seeks its own nuclear weapons, but Park Geun-hye still sees boosting nuclear energy industry as a great opportunity for the South Korean economy. Now a nuclear exporter, South Korea has concluded agreements with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to construct one research reactor and four commercial reactors. Notably, Park herself demonstrated her willingness to promote the nuclear energy industry by visiting the UAE last year to attend the completion ceremony of the Korea-built Barakah-1 reactor, at a time when South Korea was grieving over the sinking of Sewol ferry.
The geopolitics of Northeast Asia further complicates South Korea’s position and seemingly prevents it from reversing its pro-nuclear direction. China is a nuclear weapons state possessing around 250 nuclear warheads while North Korea is a de-facto nuclear state after a series of nuclear tests conducted in 2006, 2009, and 2013. In the case of Japan, the Fukushima disaster did not entirely halt the Japanese government’s strong nuclear power aspirations. Notwithstanding widespread anti-nuclear protests, the Japanese government has recently restarted the Sendai-1 reactor, after shutting down all of its 44 operable reactors in the wake of Fukushima. Some also believe that Japan has the capability to develop its own nuclear weapons because of its highly advanced nuclear technology, including nuclear fuel reprocessing. Surrounded by these three military and civil nuclear powers, South Korea appears to find it difficult to abandon the path it has pursued over the last half century, even though Korea’s nuclear aspirations currently remains in the civilian realm.
Series of Hurdles
Korea’s success in the nuclear export market and geopolitical necessities notwithstanding, the current domestic situation is hardly favorable to the South Korean government. The 2013 scandal over hundreds of faulty components used in reactors is still unfolding. A parliamentary audit last year revealed that the temporary suspension of the operations of nuclear power plants after the scandal caused the loss of 10 trillion won (about $9.5 billion), and that some officials fired from the KEPCO E&C (Korea Electric Power Corporation Engineering and Construction) over the scandals were rehired. Worse, the result of the referendum in Samcheok is probably only the beginning of a series of hurdles which the South Korean government will have to overcome. More than half of the respondents in a recent poll conducted in Yeongdeok, in North Gyeongsang Province, which was also designated as a nuclear power plant site by the government in 2012 along with Samcheok, opposed the central government’s construction plan.
The consent of local residents will be even more important in the near future as South Korea faces a crisis over the storage of nuclear spent fuel. South Korea has nearly 9,000 tons of spent fuel stacked in temporary storage pools with about 750 tons added to the pools every year. They could reach maximum capacity by 2021. The government has been deliberating over several ways of storing spent fuel, including pyroprocessing and a medium-term solution using dry casks; but no matter what method South Korea chooses, the government will need to be able to persuade people living next to the facility, no easy task as Samcheok has demonstrated.
Clearly, given its heavy dependence on energy imports, reducing its reliance on nuclear energy will be tough decision for South Korea. However, social costs and safety risks should not be underestimated in the policymaking process. In the absence of guaranteed safety, policy packages to boost the economy of a candidate city are proving insufficient to win over local residents to a nuclear power plant project in the post-Fukushima era. At the same time, the South Korean government needs to be able to communicate with its people and be more transparent in developing a long-term energy policy. South Korea stands at the crossroads and must decide whether its current nuclear energy policy should proceed as planned. If it decides to stick to its original plan, the government will have to persuade both the general public and the residents of candidate cities with arguments they can accept.
Se Young Jang is an associate of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and a non-resident Kelly fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.