Korea’s Battle to Keep the Lights On

Elderly rural residents in South Korea’s southeast – short, grandmotherly figures in the brightly colored clothes and broad visors typical of elderly women –are tussling with police young enough to be their grandsons in a battle that could have far-reaching implications in the resource-poor country’s efforts to both cast itself as an nuclear power exporter and keep the lights on.

Residents of Miryang and their supporters have on and off since 2008 been holding round-the-clock sit-ins in and around their villages in an effort to prevent the state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation, or Kepco, as it is known, from setting up 52 high-voltage transmission towers through their land, which is mostly used for farming.

The government says the towers are needed for to bring power to a couple of nuclear reactors, one of which - the 1.4 gW Shinkori reactor 3 - is scheduled to open next month. The residents have cited damage to the local environment and concerns over the heightened risk of cancer caused by living near power lines in their opposition. Also for many poor villagers their plots of land are their primary assets and land values are expected to drop significantly after the towers go up.

Despite the residents’ efforts to block the entrances to their village, which forced Kepko to bring in equipment by helicopter, the project is moving ahead and is likely to be completed by the end of this year. The residents had asked that the power lines either be rerouted or buried underground. They have pointed to the fact that power lines have been buried in some wealthier areas of the country, particularly Bundang, a well-to-do suburb of Seoul. They also have argued that they are being forced to bear an unfair portion of the burden of producing the country’s electricity, which is mostly consumed in Seoul and other large urban areas.

South Korea’s history of rapid industrialization is full of cases similar to what is now taking place in Miryang: rural residents being removed from land meant for national infrastructure projects such as dams or highways. In the past residents often accepted the logic that the project in question was necessary for the country’s progress. After accepting some compensation money from the government, they would step aside and allow the project to go ahead.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited Miryang in September and announced a proposed W18.5 billion (US$17 million) compensation plan under which Kepco would offer W400 million each to the 1,800 households in the vicinity of the planned towers for the 765-kilovolt transmission line. But some Miryang residents have thus far said vowed not to accept compensation, that the only acceptable outcome for them is being allowed to continue to live on their land without the transmission towers.

There is also an external reason for Kepco’s determination to complete the project before the end of the year. Shinkori reactor 3 is the same model that the South Korean government is promoting as an export. It was part of a $20.4 billion 2009 deal between a consortium made up of Kepco and Samsung and Hyundai’s construction branches and the United Arab Emirates. Shinkori reactors 3 and 4 are to be connected to the power lines currently being set up in Miryang. Operation of reactor 3 is scheduled to being in December and 4 in September of next year.

Conventional wisdom is that South Korea’s reputation as a purveyor of nuclear power is on the line in Miryang. If Shinkori reactor 3 can’t get up and running in time, it will be bad PR for the South Korean firms seeking to win reactor construction contracts abroad.

The case gets to the heart of South Korea’s somewhat peculiar stance on nuclear power, As it tries hard to export its nuclear knowhow to the Middle East, China and India, its own facilities aren’t making the grade at home and its population is resisting planned expansions.

The issue of energy supply is being discussed more with the onset of the cold winter, during which heating facilities will strain the country’s power grid. Throughout the summer, demand from air conditioners brought the grid close to collapse.

Currently six of South Korea’s 23 nuclear plants are offline due to safety issues. Many of the country’s plants are nearing the end of their original lifespans and are experiencing regular hiccups in their operations. And with some of the plants shut down after a scandal which found some of them operating with falsified safety certificates, there is also public pressure to move away from nuclear energy to avoid a Fukushima-style crisis.

South Korea has little in way of domestic oil or natural gas. Officials say nuclear power is essential to energy self-sufficiency, and shifting from nuclear energy to imported fossil fuels would cost millions and drive up household energy prices, which are currently some of the lowest in the industrialized world.