Sweden. Costa Rica. Nicaragua. These are just a few of the many countries that have switched their main energy source to renewable energy as a means to sustainably produce energy. South Korea seems to be hoping to join the bandwagon as well. Using “safety” as a justification, President Moon Jae In has been taking major steps away from not only coal, which is well-known for its pollution, but also nuclear power. However, the latter commitment has generated significant criticism as a hasty and undemocratic decision. This raises the issue of whether nuclear power should continue to be an essential component of South Korea’s energy production process.
On June 19, 2017, President Moon announced, “We must pursue sustainable environmental and sustainable growth. I am convinced that clean energy, which prioritizes national health, is the goal of our energy policy. There will be no further continuation of the construction of nuclear power plants.” Since then, several changes have been made. To name a few: South Korea’s oldest nuclear power plant Kori 1 has been permanently shut down, with plans for other old reactors to follow suit, and the development of Kori 5 and 6 has been halted. All of these actions have happened in the blink of an eye.
▲ Coal power plants are also to be eliminated according to the Moon Administration. PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK BY CHUYUSS.
The actions taken by the administration have received a mixed reaction from the public. Supporters of Moon’s decision feel that it truly takes the public’s safety concerns into consideration. The fear of nuclear power became widespread all over the world after the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, which happened in 1986 and 2011, respectively. Moon’s opponents, however, wish to dispel the misconceptions regarding nuclear power in order to persuade the government of its importance to South Korea.
There is one main justification for President Moon’s decision—safety. “So far, South Korea’s energy policy has been pursuing cheap prices and efficiency,” Moon said, referring to the country’s reliance on nuclear power for the past decade. “Cheap production was prioritized above all else while public safety took a back seat. It is time for a change. The conviction that safety and the lives of people are more important than anything else must be firmly established.” This stance has been gaining momentum following Kori 1’s discontinuation, seeing as how its outdated facilities had raised some eyebrows. However, delaying the promising progress of Kori 5 and 6 is a different story.
The blueprints of Kori 5 and 6 were drafted with careful attention based on consultation with professionals to build the most efficient and reliable power plants. Efficiency is crucial in producing a sufficient amount of energy that could support the public’s needs, while reliability prevents the possibility of another incident akin to the Fukushima explosion happening in South Korea. According to Professor Kim Myung Hyun (Department of Nuclear Engineering, Kyung Hee University), “Shin Kori 5 and 6 were built based on outsourced material from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and would harness one of the safest and cheapest technologies to ever exist. They even outrank the latest nuclear power plant built in France.”
▲ Current situation of domestic nuclear energy production. PROVIDED BY KAIF.
The decision to temporarily shut down the development of Kori 5 and 6 was decided in a Cabinet meeting. This decision was a crucial one as it is a stepping stone to bigger policies that will shape the way energy is produced within the country. While the decision was made in compliance with the law, one problem was that the Minister of Trade, Industry, and Energy was not present during the process . Therefore, adequate representation of all relevant perspectives was absent when important decisions were being made. What is more disconcerting is how the government so easily abandoned those involved in the nuclear engineering field on a rocky hill. Domestic universities that have established nuclear engineering departments are now marginalized, with their admission rates seeing a decline. Hence, it is natural that nuclear engineering professors have joined together to take action.
As of August 4, 2017, over 417 professors from 60 engineering colleges have signed a petition titled “Professors Urging Responsible Energy Policy Establishment.” Some of the schools that the professors are affiliated with include Kyungpook National University(KNU), Seoul National University (SNU), Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST), and Kyung Hee University(KHU). The professors who signed the petition have expressed their own and their students’ deepest disappointment with the Moon administration over the shift away from a promising energy source. They also believe that phasing out nuclear power will lead to greater financial woes.
▲ Professors Urging for Responsible Energy Policy Establishment. PROVIDED BY YONHAP NEWS.
Inconsistencies in Moon’s Policies
According to the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), nuclear energy currently generates 22 percent of the country’s electricity. This ranks it third behind natural gas (33 percent) and coal (28 percent), while renewable energy sources currently supply approximately 5 percent. The recent decision by the Moon administration aims to increase renewable energy production in South Korea to 20 percent and gas-fired power from 18 percent to 27 percent by the year 2030. This decision raises a number of practical concerns regarding the feasibility of the plan.
To begin with, the Moon administration decided to step away from coal power due to its detrimental impacts on the environment. However, gasfired power also produces harmful substances that create greenhouse gases when energy is being generated. A bigger problem is that South Korea is not a gas-producing country in the first place. It is already the fourth largest importer of gas, and this course of action will ultimately increase the country’s reliance on foreign resources. This means that the cost of importing energy will rise accordingly. It is important to note that this cost is contingent on the exporting country’s goodwill.
Granted, a lot of people could argue that the current gas prices are low and affordable, which makes gas attractive. However, thinking in the long term may lead to a different conclusion. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource, so gas reserves are limited. If the Moon administration truly wants sustainability in terms of energy production, the current policies need to point in a different direction.
In addition, increasing the production of renewable energy from five percent to 20 percent in a span of thirteen years sounds rather naïve. “[It] is a task that is much more complicated than people think,” says Kim. “Renewable energy is dependent on natural conditions, so the utilization rate cannot be more than 20 percent.” The production of energy from natural resources can be stymied by many factors. For example, wind energy is only available on windy days, while solar energy is only plentiful during the sunny days of summer. South Korea’s environmental conditions make it difficult for any one kind of renewable energy source to reliably supply public demand.
In other countries, environmental conditions are much more advantageous. Chile, for instance, decided to increase renewable energy production, specifically solar energy. In order to do this, they
installed numerous solar panels near the Atacama Desert, where there is ample sunlight throughout the year. Such geographical advantages are the reason why a lot of countries have effectively turned to renewable energy to replace traditional sources of energy. South Korea, however, does not have similar conditions that will make the production of renewable energy efficient and the cost of making existing conditions more favorable for renewable energy production would be excessively high.
“If we want to create an adequate amount of wind power, for example, we need a landmass that is 16 times larger than Yeouido,” says Kim. Whether Korea chooses to invest in wind power, solar power, or any other renewable power source, it will require a great deal of research and land to produce a sufficient amount of energy that could supply the public’s energy needs. Furthermore, as more traditional power plants are shuttered, the urgency to come up with alternatives would be more pressing than ever. However, installing enough renewable power plants is an unprecedentedly large project that could take decades to complete.
▲ President Moon persists on his denuclearization plans. PROVIDED BY NEWS SKY.
Absurdity of Sustainable Electricity Bills
Kim Tae-young, Chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, announced on July 31 that "There will not be any increase in electricity prices until 2022." "It is possible to keep electricity bills from rising for the next five years,” stated Kim. “However, development costs will continue to accrue even after the five years.” Thus, even though President Moon can keep the costs from rising while he is in office, what will happen after is still unknown. In the case of Germany, a strong drive for renewable energy in the 17 years since 2000 has resulted in electricity prices rising by 80 percent.
The Moon administration claims that the increase in renewable energy thanks to rapid development will be able to make up for the absence of nuclear energy, reducing the impact on electricity prices. In response to this claim, Professor Whang Jooho (Nuclear Engineering Department, Kyung Hee University) sardonically replied, “The German government tried that for 17 years!” Taking these factors into consideration, the government ought to clarify precisely how it plans to keep electricity bills stable in the long term. “It is paradoxical to maintain low electricity bills when using expensive gas instead of low-priced nuclear power. The increase in costs can be offset by tax exemptions, yet the burden will continue to increase over the next five years,” states Choi Hee Dong (Department of Nuclear Engineering, Seoul National University). Korea must be prepared to handle a dramatic increase in electricity prices for the denuclearization plan to work.
▲ Professor Whang Jooho of Kyung HeeUniversity shares his opinion on this hotly debated issue. PHOTOGRAPHED BY TAE IN PARK.
Is Nuclear Energy Safe?
Pandora (2016), a movie about a nuclear explosion caused by a strong earthquake in Busan and Ulsan, has caused apprehension amongst locals of the area. When the Kori 5 and 6 units are completed, nine nuclear power plants will be tightly packed in and around these cities. The 3.8 million people who live within a 30 kilometer radius of these plants fear that the situation depicted in the film will become a reality. In fact, some scientists even claim that an accident in this area could lead to the worst calamity in human history.
Despite numerous benefits reaped from nuclear energy in the past decades, its merits are often overshadowed by the dread of nuclear meltdowns that movies like Pandora and historical precedents amplifies in people’s minds. For instance, after three major nuclear incidents—Three Mile Island near Pennsylvania (1976), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima Daiichi (2011)—South Koreans are now doubly fearful of nuclear power. Yet, this fear seems unwarranted once the causes of these disasters are thoroughly examined.
The Three Mile Island accident was a combination of engineering problems and human error misread gauges, faulty valves and poor judgment—that caused a nuclear meltdown. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (USNRC) investigation stated that the amount of radioactive gases released into the atmosphere did not pose a health threat. Since then, swift technological improvements have been designed to minimize the dependence on human labor. Automatic valves and meticulously programmed gauges are installed to immediately halt the system in an emergency.
The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in present-day Ukraine, was the result of a terminal nuclear explosion that occurred during an experimental trial. Many overlook the fact that the Chernobyl plant did not have a containment building; the surrounding area was entirely exposed to the radiation emanating from the power plant. Currently, advanced technology allows nuclear plants to cope with the most extreme cases. There are several layers of protection to prevent direct exposure if radiation leakage were to occur.
Several natural disasters in recent timesmhave also stoked fear in the minds ofmKoreans. Many are afraid that an earthquake may damage nuclear plants, dissipating thousands of grays (Gy)* into the environment, as in the Fukushima nuclear accident. However, the truth is that the incident in Fukushima was instigated by a tsunami, not an earthquake; the low seismic activity in and around the Korean Peninsula means that the possibility of Korea being swept up by a devastating tsunami is slim at best. The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant was located at a geographically higher point than the tsunami and was not affected. It was only the Fukushima No. 1 Power Plant that was affected by the ensuing flood because it was located closer to the coastline.
These nuclear-related disasters can all partially be attributed to human error, which is avoidable with adequate precautions and safety protocols. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) announced that as of April 2017, 30 countries worldwide are operating 449 nuclear reactors for electricity generation. To reassure Koreans, nuclear-related organizations, including the Korea Energy Economics Institute (KEEI), have insisted that, despite the considerable number of nuclear power plants worldwide, there has not been a major catastrophe due to an earthquake in the past 50 years. Professor Whang says, “After the Fukushima incident, our nuclear power plants became much more reliable, reinforcing safety regulations in Kori 3 and 4. Kori 5 and 6 are 40 years ahead of Kori 1 in terms of technology. The level of safety equipment is more than enough to prevent any radiation leakage, not to mention a breakage in the gauges in the first place.”
According to research conducted by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), living within 80.5 kilometers of a nuclear power plant will expose an individual only to an average of 0.01 millirem** per year. They also state that the lethal dosage expected to cause death to 50 percent of an exposed population within 30 days is in the range of 400 to 450 rem received over a very short period of time. Because the residents of Busan and Ulsan are exposed to a maximum of 0.03 millirem per year, they are not faced with imminent threats from exposure to radiation.
▲ Germany's Costly Clean-Energy Boom. GRAPH RETREIVED FROM BLOOMBERG BASED ON AMPRION, 50HERTZ, TRANSETBW, TENNET TSO
Dangers of Nuclear Waste?
Although the radiation emitted by household devices, including television or microwaves, is safe, radiation from sources utilized in nuclear power stations possess ionizing properties. Uranium and its byproducts, such as cobalt-60, cesium-137 and iridium-192, are radioactive isotopes emitted by the elements used in nuclear power stations and have a destructive impact on the human body.
Waste material from nuclear power stations takes a long time to lose its radioactivity. Currently, there are no chemical means to dispose of nuclear waste. Radioactive waste is disposed of under bedrock enclosed in synthetic barriers. Thus,with the accumulation of nuclear waste, the question is whether there is enough land in Korea to deposit it underground. Whang states, “Not many are familiar with how large our landmass is; obtaining land for nuclear waste disposal is not a problem. When nuclear waste is buried underground, the flow of groundwater is much slower, prolonging the time required for radiation to reach Earth’s surface.”
The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission has announced that radioactive waste of “extreme low levels” can be dealt with using deep disposal or shallow land disposal. If tightly shielded and sealed, it can be discarded in a safe manner. “The best way is to establish a facility that can last 300 years as the material will lose its radiation by then,” explains Kim. Gyeongju Radioactive Waste Repository, which is now in operation, has been securely built to reassure local residents. With six underground silos, it is expected to be filled in ten years. It has been confirmed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) that the key services are all able to withstand earthquakes. Even the shutter doors to the service tunnel have been designed to endure a tsunami.
Although the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD) has conducted several trials to ensure that it is safe to dispose of intermediate and low-level nuclear waste, the trouble is high-level waste, particularly nuclear fuel. With high levels of radiation, it has a half-life of one million years or more. The question is not how much waste there is to get rid of. “To be secure, the waste should be disposed of in an area that can be protected for 5,000 years,” suggests Kim.
The bottom line is, once a large expanse of land for disposal and affordable construction technology are acquired, the controversy surrounding the disposal of nuclear energy should subside. In fact, Japan, Russia, and France invest a lot in research and development (R&D) fuel is theoretically possible and, at this stage, countries are competing with each other for the necessary technology; Korea started this research six years ago. Kim personally believes that “all problems will be resolved by temporarily storing nuclear waste underground for 100 years, as after a century of technological advancement, disposal using reprocessing techniques will be possible.”
On July 21, 33 days after the halt in the construction of Kori 5 and 6, the electrical power supply reservation ratio*** fell to 12 percent, according to the Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting (JTBC) Newsroom. The government asked businesses and factories to reduce electricity usage; 5,200 companies and factories subsequently saved 1,700 megawatts of electricity last month. At this point, the opposition party castigated the government for attempting to whitewash the weaknesses of their denuclearization policy by forcing companies to curb their power usage. Lee Yong-ho, chairman of the opposition party's policy committee, declared, "The government seems intent on maintaining a high reserve ratio for electricity and supporting nuclear power plants."
At KEPCO, power generation facilities store 22 percent more electricity than the maximum electricity demand rate. The government announced on August 9 that their eighth strategic supply and demand plan to lower the electricity reserve by two to three percentage points. Their strategy is to temporarily reduce power usage by increasing the number of companies and factories that will request a document outlining their previous electricity usage before reaching the maximum limit set by the government. However, the administration’s proposal to increase the use of renewable energy, which is heavily dependent on weather conditions, deepens the concern regarding a hike in electricity prices.
Granted, safety concerns must be takenminto consideration, but this should be donemafter precise analysis and careful decisionmakingmrather than as an impulsive political judgment. South Korea’s nuclear power plants have the ability to safely generate electricity while preserving the environment. Nuclear energy is one of the country’s most reliable sources of electricity; it allows electricity prices to remain stable and ensures that citizens are not overly reliant on a limited source of electricity, such as coal or other fossil fuels. Although Korea’s fear of nuclear energy has been heightened by horrifying incidents both near and far away from the Korean Peninsula, swift advances in technology will ensure the safety of Korean citizens. Thus, the Moon administration should approach this momentous decision of phasing out nuclear power with much more prudence than they have shown thus far.
Ultimately, the government’s energy policy—an immensely crucial topic for the nation—ought to be set in a diligent manner. When making decisions about where Korea’s energy is obtained, multiple perspectives should be embraced for balanced and conclusive conclusions to be drawn, which was conspicuously absent when the decision was made to halt the construction of new nuclear plants. Neglecting the entire nuclear power industry for fear of unlikely accidents already has and will continue to get in the way of an efficient production of energy, while unfairly disadvantaging those who have strived to develop and secure the nation’s energy supply.
*GRAY (GY): THE SYSTEM INTERNATIONALE (SI) UNIT OF MEASUREMENT FOR RADIATION EXPOSURE
**MILLIREM: THE UNIT OF ABSORBED RADIATION DOSE
*** ELECTRICAL POWER SUPPLY RESERVATION RATIO: A FIGURE THAT SHOWS HOW MUCH MORE POWER CAN BE SUPPLIED THAN THE ELECTRICITY USED AT THE TIME