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The death of expertise

July 03,2017
이미지뷰
President Moon Jae-in announces a plan to permanently unplug the Kori Nuclear Power Plant No 1 in Busan last month. [YONHAP]
Environmentalists are applauding South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s policy to wean the country off nuclear power. “The president has given a clear answer to public calls. Today is a historic day bringing the country one step towards an energy democracy,” said the Seoul branch of Greenpeace after Moon formerly decommissioned the country’s oldest nuclear reactor, Kori 1, on June 19.

The Korea Federation of Environmental Movements on June 27 celebrated the country’s progress towards “energy democracy” after the government announced it was temporarily halting the construction of the two reactors, Kori 5 and 6, for a three-month study to gauge the public’s view on killing the project.

Energy democracy refers to choices given to individuals and communities in terms of energy sources instead of using whatever power generation means used by the state-owned Korea Electric Power Corp. The term came up as increasing renewable energy sources became available, including solar and wind power, and after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. Consumers can source power through rooftop solar panels or buy from other households, reducing the need for nuclear- or fossil-fuel-powered generators that pose safety concerns and harm the environment.

Consumers can play the roles of producer and contribute to energy efficiency while being friendly to their planet. The Brooklyn Microgrid is a fledgling project in which residents and businesses in New York install rooftop solar panels and share or sell excess electricity credits. The peer-to-peer energy trading system is even more common in Germany, where there are more than 5 million individuals and corporate vendors.

Moon was able to challenge the mighty nuclear power community through the reasoning of energy democracy. In one booklet, the Progressive Energy Climate Policy Institute claimed energy policy has been unilaterally decided by bureaucrats based on guidance from scientists and economists. It argued there is no proof that the knowledge of experts is any better than that of ordinary people.

The government — the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power — have overlooked the rise of anti-nuclear sentiment amid the development of renewable energy. The industry and academic circles along with public utilities have been labeled the “nuclear mafia” or “surrogates of an energy dictatorship.” Negative sentiment towards nuclear power sprouted after the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Nuclear industry experts were frozen out of the new government’s phasing out of nuclear power. The group may be on the list of “deplorables” the new government wants nothing to do with. Due to unlimited access to all kinds of information, ordinary people are increasingly rejecting advice from experts as U.S. Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols declared in his book “The Death of Expertise.”

Energy in the ancient days was the realm of gods. In modern times, it came under the control of the state and corporate sector. Now it is being controlled by the masses, many of whom believe in renewable energy. But questions must be answered in order for the idealism of energy democracy and clean and safe energy to gain an upper hand.

Wouldn’t it be better for a nuclear phase-out to take place in accordance with the development and proliferation of renewable energy? Isn’t the legislature better suited to decide the fate of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors instead of a group of civilians? Would energy democracy help or hurt the poor? If natural gas replaces nuclear power for a third of our electricity supply, wouldn’t the country’s energy supply become unstable due to overreliance on imports? And how about spikes in electricity bills? We have to see if the rash character of Koreans shapes the country’s energy future as well.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 1, Page 26

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Hong Seung-il