June 20, 2017 12:40
Speaking at the shutdown of Korea's oldest nuclear reactor in Busan, President Moon Jae-in on Monday said his administration will halt the construction of new nuclear power plants and will not extend the operations of aging reactors. Moon has called for a nuclear-free energy policy since his election campaign. He said the earthquakes that rattled southeastern Korea last year showed that the country is no longer safe from such disasters and stressed that Korea has the highest concentration of nuclear power plants per area of land in the world, with some 3.8 million people living within a 30 km radius of the nuclear power plant in Busan.
But it needs to be remembered that the country relies on imports to meet 97 percent of its energy needs. Annual energy imports average more than US$160 billion, and nuclear power accounts for only two percent of that at $800 million to meet 30 percent of the nation's energy needs. Nuclear power also puts the country in an advantageous position in terms of meeting stricter emissions limits set by global climate change pacts.
Moon also wants to stop building coal-fired power plants and shut down 10 old ones within his term and instead boost cleaner liquid natural gas and renewable energy. But nuclear and coal-fired power plants together now account for 70 percent of total energy output. Korea would have to import W19 trillion more LNG annually to replace these conventional energy sources (US$1=W1,134). Wind and solar power generation technologies are still insufficient to meet the country's heavy energy needs.
Germany, which decided to gradually shut down its 17 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan, has increased the proportion of wind and solar energy but witnessed a 78-percent rise in household electricity charges over the last 10 years. Windmills and solar panels cannot produce electricity when there is no wind or when the skies are overcast.
Still, for Europe it makes more sense to attempt a gradual transformation at this point because it has an interconnected power grid that allows one country to borrow electricity from another if the need arises. But Korea is a virtual island when it comes to power. The issue of energy is a double-edged sword. Pursue a nuclear-free energy policy and the country's hard-earned nuclear power-generation knowhow will gather dust. It will become difficult to restart an industry once it is mothballed.
And changes in energy policy have ramifications that stretch for decades and cannot be changed easily. When Germany decided to shut down its nuclear reactors back in 2011, it set up a 17-member ethics committee who argued the pros and cons of the issue fiercely for several months. The issue was also dealt with in an 11-hour televised debate and put to a vote by lawmakers.
Switzerland also decided to scrap its nuclear reactors, but that was after a public referendum. In contrast, the U.K. is moving to boost the number of nuclear reactors, and Japan is slowly restarting reactors that were halted after the Fukushima disaster.
Moon's term lasts five years, which is not long enough to change everything. There are decisions he can make and others he should leave to the democratic process. Energy and education policies that fundamentally change to society should not be decided at presidential whim. They require careful planning and broad consent so they can be properly enshrined, rather than being put at the next government's whim again.
Korea does not even have a basic roadmap for the move to alternative energy sources. This issue should not be treated as a political football. Something as fundamental as a course change in energy policy must be given the green light by the whole of society.
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