South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Debate via The Diplomat

South Korea’s experiment in deliberative democracy will impact President Moon Jae-in’s nuclear phase-out policy.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on October 22 that he would resume the construction of two nuclear reactors which had been temporarily halted since mid-July, accepting a deliberative poll in favor of the resumption. On the surface, this decision might be seen as a direct blow to Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy; however, this deliberative democratic process will have a more complicated effect on South Korea’s long-term energy policy. The majority of the respondents ironically supported restarting construction on the two plants and scaling down nuclear power generation at the same time. Such an ironic but eclectic decision made by citizens will contribute to managing a sharp conflict between pro- and anti-nuclear groups while giving some degree of domestic legitimacy to Moon’s long-term energy roadmap for a gradual nuclear phase-out.

South Korea is the fifth-largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, with its 24 reactors generating about a third of its electricity. During his presidential campaign early this year, Moon pledged to phase out coal and nuclear energy, mainly due to the public’s growing concerns about air pollution and nuclear safety. Instead, Moon vowed to increase the share of renewable energy up to 20 percent of total electricity generation by 2030. After taking office, Moon reconfirmed his campaign promise; in a speech to mark the permanent shutdown of Kori-1, South Korea’s oldest commercial nuclear reactor which went into operation in 1978, he declared, “We will abolish our nuclear-centered energy policy and move towards a nuclear-free era. We will completely scrap construction plans for new nuclear reactors that are currently under way.”

As of late May 2017, state-run nuclear operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) had five new nuclear reactors under construction; among them, three reactors were nearly complete while other two (Shin Kori no. 5 and no. 6) had been 28.8 percent done (10.4 percent in terms of actual construction) with roughly $1.4 billion already spent and estimated total losses (sunk costs) of $2.3 billion. Moon’s pursuit of “a nuclear-free era” made the fate of the two ongoing construction projects controversial, sparking heated debates between pro- and anti-nuclear campaigners in South Korea. Advocates for resuming the construction assured that the Shin Kori 5 and 6 would be “the most up-to-date version of the third-generation type, equipped with intensive safety features,” while opponents expressed their concerns about the location of these nuclear reactors in a highly-populated area, no matter how advanced safety measures would be.


rns raised by civic groups against the construction is the high-density population near the Shin Kori nuclear power plant. Almost 4 million residents live within a 30 km-radius of the Shin Kori, meaning any nuclear accident or terrorist attack would incur an unimaginable number of casualties. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, for comparison, had 160,000 residents within a radius of 30 km. Ulsan is also home to South Korea’s heavy and chemical industries, including shipbuilding and automobile manufacturing. If an accident happened in one of the nuclear power plants in Ulsan, its effect on South Korea’s economy would be significant as well.

These concerns were further heightened after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck another southeastern city, Gyeongju, last year. It was the most powerful quake ever recorded in South Korea. As the Shin Kori nuclear power plants in Ulsan’s Sinam village are located less than 50 km away from the earthquake’s epicenter, local residents became more concerned about their safety.


The deliberative polling with regard to the resumption of construction on the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors had its own limits, such as insufficient time assigned for deliberation and a lack of consideration for the voices of local residents around the plant. Despite these limits, this experiment in deliberative democracy is expected to serve as an important precedent for the new administration’s work on peacefully resolving or managing conflicts over other highly divisive issues, like the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Both pro- and anti-nuclear energy advocates, in addition to the Moon administration, now face a new task: how to effectively inform and persuade the public in this era of deliberative democracy. Politics is an art of persuasion, after all.

Read more at South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Debate 

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