Crucial Nuclear Debate in S. Korea Nonexistent

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.

First, nuclear power plants have experienced accelerated expansion to cope with the tremendous hike in energy consumption that came with economic growth. Nuclear power, as the “cheap, safe and domestic source of energy,” expanded to encompass around three-tenths of gross generation. It served as a plan for “secure energy,” because South Korea previously had to import around 96 percent of its energy.

The cheap power rates that came along with nuclear power contributed to the accelerated growth of the nuclear energy industry. The production expense of nuclear energy, making up about 30 percent of gross generation as mentioned, is lower than other sources of energy. This low unit price positioned nuclear energy as the core energy source supporting South Korea’s rapid economic growth.

Second, a supply-centered energy paradigm also played a big role in the nuclear industry’s expansion. South Korea’s energy policy was focused on generating and supplying enough energy to meet society’s needs. Supplying sufficient energy to meet rising energy demand forced the country to focus more on energy supply. Energy supply was a more core value than energy conservation or efficiency, with nuclear power enabling this kind of development.

Meanwhile, the so-called “nuclear mafia” emerged alongside the growth of the nuclear industry, composed of bureaucrats, industrialists and scholars. They contributed to the nuclear industry’s growth, while also creating a nuclear cartel, a rent-seeking structure free from external checks and constraints.

Lastly, an industrial composition encouraging excessive energy consumption has significantly contributed to the growth of nuclear energy. The industrial structure of excessive energy consumption, centering on the heavy chemical industry, remains focused on key industries, and is therefore stalling attempts at reducing energy consumption.

After the oil shocks, advanced countries such as Europe and Japan transformed their industrial structures into low-energy consumption models. Yet South Korea, during the process of economic development, did not reform the excessive energy consumption industrial structure, and was forced to expand nuclear energy in response to continuingly increasing energy consumption. Where to place focus in the 21st century industrial structure is one critical issue in South Korean society today.

The cost of decommissioning nuclear plants is also emerging as a serious problem. Japan, after the Fukushima accident, limited the operating period of nuclear plants to 40 years, and decided to decommission five decrepit ones. Although the cost of decommissioning differs according to calculation methods, in the case of Japan, the decommissioning cost of the Tokai nuclear plant that ceased operation in 1998 is postulated to be ¥90 billion [US$752 million].

Considering that the first nuclear budget Japan passed in 1954 was ¥235 million (derived from uranium used for nuclear power generation), and combining decommissioning costs with electricity charges, critics say that nuclear energy is no longer a cheap source of energy.

US-South Korea Agreement

Along with these domestic political economic causes, the international aspect of nuclear energy has contributed to the expansion of the South Korean nuclear energy sector. In particular, cooperation with the US, which has provided South Korea with nuclear reactors and nuclear energy technology, was the central source of the development of nuclear energy here.

Yet, in order to prevent nuclear proliferation, countries that provide nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel, and nuclear energy technology are imposing significant regulations on the importing country. The US has supplied South Korea with nuclear reactors, but at the same time, it is exerting various regulatory powers in South Korea’s nuclear energy industry to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

This nuclear cooperation agreement with the US is critical when considering the nuclear energy sector in South Korea.

The newly amended US-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement will soon be announced. The current agreement between the US and South Korea that came into effect in 1973 was scheduled to expire in March 2014, but was extended for two years because the two countries were unable to complete negotiations on an amendment. In discussions on the amendment of the agreement, South Korea held hopes of achieving such stipulations as efficient management of spent nuclear fuel, a stable supply of nuclear fuel, and enhancement of atomic power export through an “advanced and mutual agreement.” Yet, the most important issue in the amendment negotiations was on the “enrichment of uranium” and rights to “reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.” As the world’s fifth largest nuclear energy power, South Korea requested enrichment and reprocessing rights, which the US opposed for reasons related to nuclear nonproliferation.

In the yet to be announced agreement, enrichment and reprocessing are left with some leeway, neither permitted nor explicitly prohibited. The two countries reached a compromise that does not permit nor prohibit enrichment and reprocessing, employing a “not no, not now” wording, delaying the decision on whether to permit reprocessing until South Korea completes development of its reprocessing method, the pyro-processing technology.

Yet there is insufficient discussion on whether South Korea actually needs enrichment and reprocessing. Omitting specific discussion on whether enrichment and reprocessing is consistent with South Korea’s national interests, the reasoning simply goes that “nuclear weapons sovereignty” will be withheld with lack of enrichment and reprocessing rights. Some criticize that attention is only paid to acquiring enrichment and reprocessing rights rather than determining the direction of national nuclear energy policy and the form of US-South Korea nuclear cooperation in the 21st century. It is important to view amendment of the agreement not as a means to “acquire nuclear sovereignty,” but as a larger framework to complete long-term nuclear energy cooperation between the US and South Korea.

Future Direction of Nuclear Power

The long-term plan for South Korean nuclear energy is to construct additional nuclear plants. But if the current increase in power consumption continues, the power supply will become unstable. For a year after the Fukushima accident, there was an increase in oil imports, energy consumption, and power consumption in South Korea. In contrast, Germany established a new energy model of “expansion of renewable energy through phasing out of nuclear plants,” and China has expanded nuclear facilities with a drastic increase in energy consumption, while simultaneously boosting its investment in renewable energy.

Japan, having suspended operation of all nuclear plants after the Fukushima accident, is seeking to restart its plants. Yet in Japan, even during the period of “zero nuclear plants,” there was not one incident of power failure. More than economic feasibility and efficiency, safety has become the most important value. It seems practically impossible to go back to the pre-Fukushima accident era, considering that in order to restart plant operations, the heads of local governments need to grant approval.

South Korea is maintaining its nuclear expansion policy under the justification of energy security and economic needs. Centering in civil society, there are continued requests for thorough reinvestigations meant to improve security, as well as opposition to extending nuclear plant lifespans and a reduction in nuclear plant dependency.

Yet there is no change in the government’s growth-oriented paradigm and policy of nuclear plant dependency. With the Fukushima accident serving as a catalyst, there needs to be debate on whether it is advisable to increase dependency on nuclear plants. We have reached a point that requires reexamination of the national nuclear energy policy.

There is a choice between the current expansion of nuclear facilities, or a search for a new paradigm of “phasing out dependency on nuclear facilities” and no longer building additional nuclear plants. The nation should be able to choose which energy paradigm it will have to live with.

This is adapted from a policy debate study for the Seoul-based EastAsia Foundation by Jin Ho Jeon, a professor in the Department of International Studies at Kwangwoon University. Currently, he resides in Japan as a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo.