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Nuclear phase-out policy should be reversed

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By Park Jin

Korea possesses a highly developed nuclear industry with 24 nuclear reactors and four more under construction. The country depends substantially on nuclear energy which produces around 29 percent of its electricity supply. The decision by the Moon Jae-in government, however, to phase out nuclear power plants in favor of renewable energy due to environmental and safety concerns in 2017 invited greater risks of economic costs, power shortages, scientific and technological setbacks and, not the least, strong political opposition.

Recently faced with electricity shortages, the Moon administration ordered the early restart of three nuclear reactors (Shin Wolsong 1, Shin Kori 4, Wolsong 3) that had been shut down for maintenance, in order to bring them online within July. The decision appears to have been reached in light of the muted effect of energy-saving measures such as cutting air conditioning at public agency offices during peak hours, and the recognition that these measures will not resolve the risk of an energy shortage.

This decision illustrates how ill-conceived Korea's nuclear phase-out policy is. The Moon government tied the fate of its administration to phasing out nuclear energy from the nation's electricity portfolio, and dedicated itself to this objective during the last four years.

Nevertheless, its nuclear phase-out has proven to be a misguided endeavor that is destabilizing the complex balance of energy demand and supply, even to the point of threatening the future of the nation's industrial sector as a whole.

The current disarray was predicted from the moment President Moon embraced the unfounded arguments and half-truths promoted by the anti-nuclear movement, and chose the most controversial path in redesigning Korea's energy mix.

President Moon's nuclear phase-out stance ended up framing the issue as a dichotomic black-and-white choice between nuclear phase-out and nuclear energy, where the former is "good" and the latter is "evil."

The undeniable truth is that nuclear energy actually brings substantial environmental benefits, and its proven economic feasibility and confirmed safety are updated constantly. The technology behind nuclear power plants is an important economic engine for the nation's future. Furthermore, nuclear energy is the most dependable and realistic alternative to fossil fuel energy that will pave the road for the global journey toward net-zero emissions.

To claim that the current Korean government, which emphasizes the importance of the environment, social and corporate governance (ESG) regime, is not aware of these facts is no longer tenable. The nuclear reactor restart has been hurried forward as worries mounted over energy shortages. Korea promised at the 2021 P4G Seoul Summit to lead the way towards carbon neutrality. Furthermore a joint foray into the global nuclear power plant market was agreed to in the Korea―U.S. Presidential Joint Statement in Washington, D.C., on May 21. These moves are unmistakable circumstantial evidence.

The unavoidable question is this. How can the country continue to pursue a nuclear phase-out while also resolving power shortages, leading the world toward carbon neutrality, and simultaneously participating in the joint effort to expand Korea-U.S. nuclear energy cooperation?

There are clear reasons why the Korean government needs to undo its nuclear phase-out policy.

First, insisting on removing nuclear energy from the nation's power generation portfolio while also aiming to bring energy demand and supply into balance is a "mission impossible," and rigidity in the face of such reality will ultimately render unobtainable the objective of net-zero.

The Korean government is presenting a plan to ramp up solar and wind power generation by 60 percent. But given the climate in Korea and the innate vulnerability of renewable energy to external variables, a stable and easily scalable energy mix cannot be achieved using such radical strategies. Compounding the situation is the massive amounts of land and resources ― such as steel ― needed for solar and wind farms, which far outweigh that required by a nuclear power plant.

Further down the road, the short lifespan of these renewable energy power plants ultimately adds to the waste burden being shouldered by the environment. When all parameters are considered, pound for pound, nuclear energy brings the greatest environmental benefits. This reality cannot be argued away.

Second, under the global net-zero emissions target, the international market for nuclear power plants is seeing steady and unblemished growth. Korea needs to harness this growth potential as a global player.

Korea has already been constructing four nuclear reactors, the Korean Advanced Power Reactor (APR) 1400 model, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2012, the first of which started commercial operation in April this year. Korea is also exploring nuclear power projects with Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The World Nuclear Association expects to see 150 or more nuclear reactor units commissioned by 2030. Such data was part of the grounds for the agreement reached at the Korea-U.S. summit last May which set the stage for the two nations to enter the global nuclear energy market together.

The collaboration of the core technical competencies and access to capital provided by the U.S., with the outstanding execution ability of Korea ― which includes construction, operation and instrument components ― will certainly help secure the global market for the industries of both nations.

Third, nuclear energy is the last line of defense for Korea's energy security. Korea depends on foreign resources to meet 90 percent or more of its energy consumption. These shipments travel to the country through contentious seas such as the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz, which are vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. In the rare but not improbable case where an international conflict spills over into these global trade lanes, Korea's energy security cannot escape a debilitating blow.

Not solely for energy security, but for the recycling of the used nuclear fuel based on nonproliferation principles, Korea needs to be able to build and operate a civil nuclear program that includes the ability to establish uniquely Korean competencies in nuclear energy technology, such as pyroprocessing which has been jointly researched by Korea and the U.S. since 2011. Korea has also pioneered the development of small modular reactor (SMR) technology, sometimes referred to as a "game changer" in the nuclear industry.

As a member of the global community faced with a truly existential task, and as a nation preparing for its next phase of innovation and growth, Korea should reassess and reverse the nuclear phase-out policy. Undoing the damage caused is the only realistic way forward to reinvigorating the nation's economy, preparing Korea for a better future and contributing to the global efforts toward carbon neutrality.


Park Jin (parkjin916@naver.com) is a lawmaker of the opposition People Power Party. He chairs the party's special committee on diplomacy and security and previously served as president of the Korea-America Association.




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