A wind farm off Jeju is an exception in South Korea, which has lagged in renewable energy.

SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

South Korea’s nuclear U-turn draws praise and darts

A campaign promise to scale back South Korea’s reliance on coal and nuclear power helped Moon Jae-in win the nation’s 10 May presidential election. In recent weeks he has fleshed out the details: He plans to phase out coal-fired power plants, block the construction of new nuclear plants, and ramp up the country’s reliance on natural gas and renewable energy. It is a dramatic reversal of the country’s previous nuclear-centric energy policy. And it has split energy economists, editorial pundits, and the academic community.

“It is a historical, transitional moment,” says Yun Sun-Jin, who studies environmental and energy policy at Seoul National University (SNU). The shift will help the country meet its pledge to cut greenhouse emissions, reduce local air pollution, and cut the risk of nuclear accidents, she says.

But some analysts wonder whether the country will be able to scale up new power sources fast enough to avoid price hikes and power disruptions. Nuclear power advocates, for their part, are appalled. A “distortion of facts is creating and spreading an ungrounded phobia” against nuclear energy, says Joo Han Gyu, a nuclear engineer at SNU. “My students are deeply disappointed” with the new policy, Joo adds. An unnamed nuclear engineering professor told local media his once thriving department is now “like a funeral parlor.” 

Energy remix

South Korea aims to boost the percentage of gas and renewable energy in its power generation and cut the share of coal and nuclear. 

(GRAPHIC) G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) South Korea Electric Power Corporation

For several decades, South Korea aggressively promoted nuclear power, both to cover the resource-poor country’s energy needs and as a potential export business. In 2016, the nation’s 25 reactors generated nearly one-third of its electricity and made it the world’s fifth largest producer of nuclear energy, according to the World Nuclear Association. At the same time, renewable energy was practically ignored. “The government thought … there was no need,” Yun says. South Korea got just 4.7% of its power from renewables in 2016 and, in 2015, ranked 45th in a survey of 46 nations that looked at the share of renewables in each country’s energy mix. After the public soured on nuclear power following Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, a previous administration even decided to build new coal-fired power plants rather than turn to renewable energy, Yun says. That would have made it nearly impossible for the country to meet its Paris agreement pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions 37% by 2030, she adds.

Moon is charting a new course toward “a nuclear-free nation,” he proclaimed at a 19 June ceremony to mark the closure of South Korea’s first nuclear power plant, the Kori 1 in Busan, which has completed 40 years of service. In public comments, Moon has suggested decommissioning other nuclear plants at the end of their initial licenses as well halting new projects in order to cut nuclear’s share of South Korea’s energy mix by nearly one-half. He also wants to close 10 older coal plants and ban new ones, and eliminate the use of oil. To compensate, the administration foresees doubling imports of liquefied natural gas by 2030 and boosting renewables to 20% of total energy.

Environmentalists welcome the moves. But last month 230 nuclear engineering professors at the nation’s universities signed a statement urging Moon to “not hastily push for the new nuclear-free energy policy.” He should first seek “a social consensus,” they say, by consulting with the public, scientists, and others. SNU’s Joo—the group’s representative—argues that Moon has been bolstering his antinuclear case by making misleading claims about the Fukushima disaster and its consequences.

Other nuclear scientists are waiting to see how South Korea’s new energy policy, due by the end of the year, might affect research, including work on fusion reactors. The new policy “likely won’t have an immediate impact,” predicts Kim Keeman, director general of South Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI) in Daejeon. NFRI hosts a tokamak research reactor and South Korea’s effort to support ITER, the experimental fusion reactor under construction near Cadarache in France. Many experts believe fusion to be a safer alternative to fission technology. But Kim sees a more fundamental issue. “People tend to feel uncomfortable with all large generating facilities, whether they be coal or nuclear,” he says. “That’s where uncertainties arise about the fate of our research.”

With reporting by Ahn Mi-Young in Seoul.