South Korea pivots away from atomic energy

AP, AFP-JIJI, Kyodo, Staff Report

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed Monday to scrap all plans to build new nuclear reactors, as he seeks to steer Asia’s fourth-largest economy clear of atomic power.

Moon, who swept to power with a landslide election win last month, campaigned on promises to phase out atomic energy and embrace what he says are safer and more environmentally friendly power sources, including solar and wind.

The triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant sparked by a powerful earthquake in March 2011 sparked widespread public concern in neighboring South Korea over its own aging atomic power stations.

“So far South Korea’s energy policy pursued cheap prices and efficiency. Cheap production prices were considered the priority while the public’s life and safety took a backseat,” Moon said in a speech marking the decommissioning of the country’s first nuclear reactor, Kori No. 1.

“But it’s time for a change,” he said.

“We will dump our atomic-centric power supply and open the door to the post-nuclear era.

“I will scrap all preparations to build new reactors currently under way and will not extend (the) life span of current reactors.”

Many reactors are located dangerously close to residential areas in the densely populated nation, Moon said, warning of “unimaginable consequences” in the event of a nuclear meltdown.

“South Korea is not safe from the risk of earthquakes, and a nuclear accident caused by a quake can have such a devastating impact,” he said.

A recent study by a South Korean scientist said that a nuclear accident at the Kori plant’s No. 3 reactor could cause wider radiation contamination in western Japan than on its home soil.

If a cooling system fails at the spent-fuel storage pools there, massive amounts of cesium-137 would be released that could potentially reach western Japan, according to a simulation by Jungmin Kang of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. think tank.

In the worst-case scenario, up to 67,000 sq. km of Japanese soil would be contaminated and 28.3 million people would be forced to evacuate, the study said, though the fallout’s spread would depend on the season.

As for South Korea, an accident at the plant could taint more than half of the nation by contaminating up to 54,000 sq. km, it said.

South Korea currently operates 25 nuclear reactors, which generate about 30 percent of the country’s power supply.

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan had similarly generated about 30 percent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, and had planned to increase that share to 40 percent.

With just a handful of its atomic plants up and running, Japan currently generates less than 1 percent of its energy needs from nuclear power.

South Korea — like Japan — is also one of only a few countries to have exported nuclear reactor technology, a sector once seen by some of its construction companies as a new cash cow. Former President Lee Myung-bak promoted nuclear energy as part of its clean energy strategy, and helped local companies win billions dollars of deals to build a nuclear reactor in United Arab Emirates.

Many of South Korea’s reactors will see their life spans expire between 2020 to 2030, with decisions on whether to extend some of their operations set to be made during Moon’s 2017-2022 term.

Moon, during his presidential campaign, vowed to try to eventually shut down all nuclear power plants nationwide, although doing so will likely take decades.

Major corruption scandals involving state nuclear power agencies in recent years and a series of earthquakes last year further fanned public distrust and concerns over the safety of the plants.

Moon also vowed Monday to decommission “as soon as possible” another aging atomic plant in the southeast, whose original 30-year life span had been extended by another decade to 2022.

He pledged to introduce “post-coal” policy in line with his campaign promise to abandon coal power, to ease air pollution in the country which has the highest level of small air pollutant particles among OECD member nations.

Experts, however, say a shutdown of coal power plants could dramatically hike utility cost in the country where coal power generates about 40 percent of its power needs.