President Moon Jae-in’s commitment to renewable energy was thrown into doubt on Friday when a specially-appointed public debate committee recommended resuming construction of reactors 5 and 6 at Shin-Kori nuclear power plant.
In his election manifesto earlier this year, Moon pledged to halt construction of new nuclear and coal plants as part of a general shift towards renewable energy — a promise strongly endorsed by his supporters. Now, his government has given the green light for the continued construction of five new coal-fired units. Moon has promised to accept the decision of the committee examining the construction of the two new Shin-Kori reactors. Some 3.8 million people live within 30 km of the Kori and Shin-Kori nuclear complex, near the southeastern city of Busan.
Environmentalists have expressed dismay at the developments. On Oct. 13, Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) condemned a “decision taken behind closed doors” by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) to let the five new coal-fired units be built.
“Put citizens’ right to breathe, and the environment, before the profits of businesses,” KFEM demanded in a statement issued the day after MOTIE’s announcement.
An official at MOTIE’s department for energy industry policy, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the decision, saying, “We need to consider not just the environment but also investors [in the power plants], and cases where permission has already been granted.”
She added that the five new plants would not affect the government’s target to dramatically increase the share of renewables in South Korea’s energy mix by 2030. As of 2015, coal and nuclear generated 39 percent and 31 percent of the country’s electricity, respectively, dwarfing renewables’ 4 percent (excluding hydroelectric).
The reaction to Friday’s Shin-Kori announcement has been more nuanced. “This means that South Korea will now have nine nuclear reactors in one cluster, which is globally unprecedented,” said Daul Jang, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia Seoul Office. “But we welcome the way the decision was reached, through public debate rather than by industry and government insiders with vested interests, and hope to see this system used again in the future.”
Jang, who participated as an expert in the public debate process, said he felt that many citizens considered the new nuclear plants necessary. He pointed to South Korea’s lack of renewable energy development. “Many people have no direct experience of [renewables]. They still talk about it as if it’s something abstract, in the future, when in global terms it’s now part of the present,” he said.
“Also, Koreans have been led to believe that nuclear exports are essential for the economy, when in fact South Korea has barely exported any nuclear plants in the least nine years and is not very competitive in global terms.”
Korean Hydro & Nuclear Power, South Korea’s sole operator of nuclear plants, invests heavily in promoting nuclear power and enjoys largely favorable coverage in the country’s mainstream media.
Cover image: Existing reactors at Shin-Kori nuclear power plant (Source: 102orion via Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA-3.0)