By: Jin Ho Jeon

The Fukushima nuclear accident, precipitated by the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, has had a dramatic effect globally, shattering the myth that it is the safest and cheapest source of energy. Germany, Belgium and Switzerland have decided to phase out nuclear power and France, the most nuclear-reliant country in the world, said it would reduce its dependence and increase the use of renewables.  

That has left South Korea’s administration, headed by President Park Guen-hye, at the other end of the spectrum. President Park, who was inaugurated after the Fukushima accident, affirmed the country’s “National Energy Basic Plan,” which increases the proportion of nuclear-type plants in the total energy-generating mix, largely without crucial debate over the issue.

Status and Issues

South Korea, since the launch of its first commercial nuclear power plant in 1978, now operates 23 nuclear power plants – 24, if the recently expanded Wolseong 1 is counted – with nuclear energy accounting for around 27 percent of gross energy generation.

A leader in expanding nuclear power generation – on par with China, India and Russia – South Korea ranks fifth in nuclear power generation. It has also exported nuclear reactors to the UAE and Jordan. Expansion of nuclear energy is the foundation of the Park administration’s energy policy, as seen in its support for the export of the nuclear power plant industry, as well as a desire to stabilize overall energy supply with the inclusion of nuclear energy.

Nevertheless, South Korea also faces serious issues. First among them is the question of energy diversification: should it increase the proportion of nuclear energy within its energy supply? Shale gas has recently emerged as a new source of energy, and natural gas supply is also on the rise. Many countries are pursuing a new energy mix which curtails their dependency on nuclear energy while enlarging renewable energy’s proportion in power generation.

In this respect, critics are recommending that full discussion of the proportion of nuclear and renewable energy should take place before deciding national energy policy based on only economic feasibility or efficiency. Economic feasibility and efficiency are important values to consider, they argue, but new paradigms such as eco-friendly, renewable energy and safety are also vital issues.

Where will South Korea place the greatest value within its energy paradigm in the 21st century? A national consensus is necessary.

The continuous increase in power consumption is another issue. Boosting the power supply, and building more nuclear power plants, might be the only way to go if South Korea cannot effectively cope with its continuous increase in power consumption. Fixes are being attempted by revisiting energy policies, such as absent management of power consumption, cheap power rates and low utilization of renewable energy.

South Korea ranks the 9th or 10th heaviest energy and power consuming country in the world, with annual consumption still on the rise. Low power rates, especially industrial rates, pose the contradiction that when more power is generated, deficits widen.

There seems no alternative to increasing the power supply unless power consumption is restrained through induced power saving, by raising power rates to an appropriate level or by a surge in energy efficiency. The government should prescribe a solution to curb this increasing power consumption.

The last issue is one that Fukushima left us with. After the accident there, the safety issue surrounding nuclear energy reemerged, including in South Korea, leading to various safety tests on nuclear power plants. Nonetheless, there have still been a series of accidents, even disasters, due to safety inadequacies. The South Korean government recently approved a 10-year reoperation period for Wolseong 1, a nuclear reactor that was to be retired in 2012 due to the expiration of its intended 30-year life.

Germany, after Fukushima, announced its closure of nuclear power plants and its simultaneous switch to renewable energy, whereas South Korea announced – the first nation to do so after Fukushima – an extension in the operations of a time-worn nuclear reactor. Kori 1, the first commercial nuclear power plant in South Korea, was re-commissioned in 2008 for 10 additional years, despite it being the site of most of the nuclear accidents in South Korea, even causing a blackout in 2012.

Questions have been raised as to whether South Korean nuclear plants are safe, and there have been demands for greater scrutiny and diligence in supplying safe nuclear energy.

The Political Economy of Nuclear Power

Three factors stand out in the background of the South Korean nuclear industry’s accelerated growth: rapid economic growth, a supply-centered energy paradigm, and an industrial composition leading to excessive energy consumption.