Making sweeping changes to South Korea’s national energy mix was never going to be easy.
Before May’s presidential election, Moon Jae-in and his Minjoo Party promised strong measures to kickstart the move away from nuclear and coal energy. But now that they find themselves in power, will they be able to overcome resistance from South Korea’s notoriously entrenched energy interests and make good on their pledges?
At lunchtime on Jun. 5, four environmental activists stood in front of the headquarters of the advisory committee on governmental planning in Tongui-dong, a Seoul neighborhood just south of the Blue House, demanding that Moon keep his nuclear manifesto promises.
(The advisory committee, which was unable to confirm its official English name to Korea Exposé at the time of writing, is an exceptional committee established to play the role normally given to a presidential transition committee. The latter does not exist for Moon Jae-in because there was no transition period.)
Key among Moon’s pledges was abandoning the construction of two new units at the Shin-Kori nuclear power complex in the south-eastern city of Ulsan. The two new reactors, units 5 and 6, were due to enter operation in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and would have made Shin-Kori, together with the adjacent Kori complex, into the world’s biggest cluster of nuclear reactors.
The activists in Tongui-dong were objecting to the labor union at Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), which operates all of the country’s 25 nuclear reactors.
In a statement issued on Jun. 2, the KHNP union protested Moon’s policy, arguing that local residents actually favored the building of the new Shin-Kori units. The statement claimed, “If the government unilaterally abandons construction, it will create conflict with the local community, lead to corporate bankruptcies and increased unemployment through the collapse of the Korean nuclear energy industry and the network of small and medium enterprises supplying materials to it, as well as wasting astronomical amounts of money including some 2.5 trillion won in investment and contract termination costs.”
In front of the advisory committee headquarters, campaigners were having none of it.
“Delivering safe, clean energy policies was Moon Jae-in’s most popular pledge [on his manifesto site],” said Yang-yi Won-young, a representative from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements. “The expansion of Korea’s nuclear industry so far has been a completely abnormal process. It was promoted through government policy, so the public enterprises providing it enjoyed huge favors, paying no administrative costs and not having to conduct economic assessments or make plans for local areas [around plants] in case of a disaster.”
Kim Kwang-chul, an activist from the environmental NGO Green Edunet, is in his fourth year of a nationwide anti-nuclear “walking pilgrimage” and has covered 4,300 kilometers so far.
Outside the committee headquarters, he told Korea Exposé, “Moon just needs to keep his promise not to build units 5 and 6 at Shin-Kori. The KHNP union, pro-nuclear academics and other related firms are making declarations and protesting to the advisory committee, but these are the people who have kept expanding nuclear power generation in Korea. … If the government blinks now, the nuclear expansion pattern will just continue. I came here today to urge the government to keep its promise from the start.”
The media relations team at KHNP confirmed that unit 1 at Kori nuclear complex, which went into operation in 1978 and is South Korea’s oldest nuclear reactor, would be shut down permanently on June 18, as planned by the Park Geun-hye government. This unit will be the country’s first reactor to be decommissioned.
On the possible closure of units 5 and 6 by Moon Jae-in, the company stated, “As a public enterprise, KHNP will follow the government’s policies in good faith whenever they are decided.”
Cover image: Kori, South Korea’s oldest nuclear plant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)