Can South Korea Ever Abandon Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear power has been a part of South Korea’s energy industry since the 1950s. Now a US$24 billion domestic industry, twenty-three nuclear reactors power one-third of South Korea’s electricity demand. Nuclear power is therefore critical to the nation’s energy security, and has inspired decades of administrations maintaining its status as a strategic priority.

South Korea’s heavy reliance on nuclear power stems from its lack of a significant natural resource base. Fossil fuels comprise approximately 85% of the country’s energy mix, and 98% of these fuels are imported. Coupled with rising power demand (which has increased by over 8% per year from 1990 to 2010) making South Korea the nation with the highest per capita electricity demand in Asia, such a degree of import dependency does not bode well for the nation’s energy security outlook. Thus South Korea has invested heavily in developing the technology to sustain nuclear production as an affordable energy source for consumers, and minimise its strategic weakness in energy supply.

In July 2015, the government released its 7th Basic Plan for Long-Term Electricity Supply and Demand, which entailed the introduction of thirteen new reactors into operation by 2029. However, the Moon government, elected in May 2017, announced its intention “abandon the development policy centred on nuclear power plants and exit the era of nuclear energy” by 2060. These plans include removing taxes on gas-fired power to increase generation by 50%, and quadruple the non-hydro renewable capacity to 20% of the energy mix by 2030. Rising concerns about air pollution and the safety of nuclear power generators, especially in light of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, have motivated this shift away from nuclear energy. However, the feasibility of such an ambitious policy pivot is in question.

Indeed, the resource-poor nation lacks access to an adequate supply of clean energy to offset an increase in demand for non-nuclear sources. At this juncture in South Korea’s energy system development, a shift away from nuclear energy may only feasibly be serviced by intensifying reliance on coal-powered electricity plants. Even if leaders were to reorient the electricity-generation portfolio towards natural gas, this solution is expensive and would also produce greenhouse gas emissions, albeit less than coal. Pivoting away from nuclear energy before the domestic renewable sector is equipped to handle such a large increase in demand risks locking the nation into producing higher emissions for the foreseeable future. Thus in a bid to avoid the potential dangers and political backlash against nuclear generation, Moon’s initiative is endangering its Climate Action Plan pledge of reducing emissions by 37%.

However, Moon’s plan does not entail the immediate ceasing of all nuclear activity. By permitting the existing nuclear reactors to live out their lifespans, South Korea still faces four decades of nuclear power generation to some degree. Should the government commit to phasing out nuclear reliance, a corresponding investment into renewable technology is necessary if the nation is ever to attain the holy trinity of cheap, clean and safe energy. Yet, with a president’s term lasting five years, the success of this endeavour is wholly dependent on later administrations renewing Moon’s commitment towards this future. Inconsistent stances on the role of nuclear power or a lack of adequate financing of the clean energy sector will keep South Korea suspended in this uneasy limbo of possible nuclear accidents and an unsatisfactory climate control regime.

Vaidehi Mahapatra


Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

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