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An angry commission

There are angry men all around the Shin Kori reactor site…
July 31,2017
I somehow was reminded of the 1957 American film “12 Angry Men” upon hearing the commission aimed to gauge public opinion on whether to permanently halt the construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear reactors decided against forming a so-called civilian jury to deliver a final decision. The film is a courtroom drama and remains one of the best court dramas till this day.

The 96-minute film almost entirely takes place on one set, portraying a 12-member jury deliberating on a juvenile murder case. The evidence and testimonies point to the 18-year-old stabbing his father to death, but one jury member persistently works on reasonable doubt and persuades the others to see things from another perspective. All others except him had voted “guilty” in the initial vote, but each cynical and impatient man eventually changes their mind to ultimately deliver a unanimous non-guilty judgment.

There are angry men all around the Shin Kori reactor site where construction that had been nearly 30 percent completed came to a stop due to a government decision to revisit the project of increasing commercial nuclear power. From the intensity of their disgruntlement and conflict, they won’t likely be won over. On one side are the residents of Ulsan and constructors, and on the other, anti-reactor and environment activists. It wouldn’t have been easy to a form a jury that can come to an agreement as in the film.

The commission may also fear legal accountability for stopping a project whose dismantlement alone would cost 2.6 trillion won ($2.3 billion) in tax money. A former justice who had been recruited to its head and other experts on the commission refuse to take up a heavy role and instead would offer its recommendation based on the findings of a survey on civilians. The Office of Government Policy Coordination remains steadfast and reiterated its initial stance that the government will act upon the commission’s judgment. The civilian group wishes to stick to their non-public role of conducting a study and making recommendations based on their findings. But the presidential office and government demands them to make a decision on their behalf.

The commission is right to restrict its role. There is no need for the government and National Assembly if people make decisions on major state affairs. But its role nevertheless is important. Since the candlelight vigil protests that eventually led to the impeachment and removal of a corrupt and impotent president, public opinions have become crucial to the point of determining the country’s energy policy. As result, a sensitive policy on nuclear reactors and commercial nuclear power has drawn the attention of the entire population. “The process can be an important experiment of the civilians learning and debating on the pros and cons of a policy instead of merely answering multiple questions in surveys that raise questions about credibility of polls,” said Eun Jae-ho, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Public Administration.

The commission’s research should mirror the limits of representative democracy, aspirations of the residents, and a collective intelligence of a non-professional group. If this is too important to be left to the experts, as proponents of a nuclear phase-out plan claim, then they must be able to come up with an alternative on who next decides the post-nuclear energy policy.

Nuclear and energy experts must present objective estimates on how the utility bills would be affected after the country powers down nuclear- and coal-fueled power stations. The numbers so far differ too greatly among contradicting groups. They must pose inarguable data so that the government cannot go on insisting that electricity bills won’t go up from a shift in energy policy as long as there is enough supply.

Koreans learn fast. They make themselves semi-experts on stem cells, mad cow, and artificial intelligence every time a big or controversial issue comes up. They can now add nuclear to their list of knowledge. Like the jurors in the film 12 Angry Men, they can be impatient at first, but upon listening, they too in the end would become enlightened with a new perspective. Although the deliberation period is set for three months, the period could be stretched to six months or a year if necessary until the society reaches a full consensus. Nuclear and renewable energy policy is worth such lengthy and thorough deliberation.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 29, Page 26

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Hong Seung-il