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Don’t pull the plug on nuclear energy

May 02,2017
In the aftermath of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, Korea faces a new era of uncertainty in the energy sector. This uncertainty is primarily because Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate from the opposition Democratic Party proposed a remarkable shift from nuclear energy.

The main question is: Can Korea decide to resign from its world-class nuclear industry and replace it with alternative resources? The answer is most likely not — due to the massive cost needed to switch to other energy alternatives, foreign energy security issues, and the current high electricity demand.

Nuclear energy remains an important strategic priority for the government. Korea is a major energy-importing country, shipping 96 percent of its energy from overseas.

Since 1971, Korea has been steadily developing top-tier nuclear power plants. From zero to its current 25 nuclear reactors, Korea produces about 23 gigawatts from nuclear plants today, providing about one-third of the total electricity supply in the country. The lack of natural resources and the current high nuclear energy dependency also will make it difficult for the nation to turn to an alternative form of energy.

The upcoming presidential election could jeopardize Korea’s nuclear industry. Since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, there has been an increasing dialogue regarding the country’s high nuclear energy dependency and safeguarding issues.

There is a political factor as well. Moon, frontrunner in the polls, pledged that he will phase out the nuclear industry and reduce coal consumption by 2060. Moon said, “I will make Korea build no more nuclear reactors and close down aged nuclear reactors when their lifespan expires.”

Moon’s proposal to import gas from Russia will bring an important energy security issue to Korea. Replacing nuclear energy with imported natural gas will only increase Korea’s dependency on the natural gas supply from Russia, which could sour U.S.-Korea relations. Korea would also no longer have the ability to use nuclear energy as a foreign policy tool when dealing with other nations.

Furthermore, if Korea shifts away from nuclear energy production and stops building reactors at home, the growth of technological innovations and exports could be hindered. Korea recently won an overseas contract valued at $20 billion to build four APR-1400 nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Korea is one of the major nuclear vendors in the global nuclear industry, and the government has been backing them through state-owned monopoly utility companies, like Korea Electric Power Corporation.

In 2010, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy declared to export 80 nuclear power reactors worth $400 billion by 2030. This would lead Korea to become the world’s third largest supplier of nuclear technology and to hold 20% of the world’s market share, following the U.S., France and Russia. Nuclear power-related business is a highly profitable market for Korea. The economic and technological tradeoffs due to switching to alternative energy resources are too large for Korea’s current market.

Given Korea’s overreliance on nuclear energy, the government needs to diversify its energy resources. Yet the level of dependency is far too high for the country to switch to other energy resources.

If Moon is elected president of Korea and shuts down the nuclear plants, the country will face serious consequences. It is much better for the country to focus on its nuclear export policy while slowly investing in other renewables.

*Student at the George Washington University.

Songyee Jung