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Moon’s ‘dictatorial’ decision to suspend nuclear reactor construction sparks outrage

July 13,2017
The Moon Jae-in administration is facing growing criticism for having sidestepped proper reviews and discussions and decided to suspend the construction of two new nuclear reactors.

“President Moon must be careful not to be intoxicated by his high approval rating,” Rep. Jeong Woon-chun, a Supreme Council member of the Bareun Party, said Thursday. “The cabinet made a decision [on June 27] to stop the construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6 after exchanging just a few words. There was no vice minister meeting to discuss it in advance. The key ministers in charge of the issue -- the minister of trade, industry and energy and the minister of science, ICT and future planning -- remained silent.”

Jeong said the Moon administration failed to respect the democratic process, criticizing the president for acting in a way that is “imperial and dictatorial.”

Since his first presidential campaign in 2012, Moon has been a supporter of a nuclear-free energy initiative. When he attended a ceremony marking the permanent shutdown of the country’s oldest nuclear reactor, the Kori 1, on June 19, he declared that Korea will scrap all plans to build new nuclear plants. He also hinted at halting ongoing construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6.

Moon hosted his first cabinet meeting on June 27 and a decision was made that ongoing construction of the two reactors will be suspended for the time being.

The ruling and opposition lawmakers started bickering about the appropriateness of the decision-making process since Tuesday, after a lawmaker said the government pulled the plug of the reactor construction without proper discussion. Rep. Kwak Dae-hoon of the Liberty Korea Party based his argument on a transcript of the June 27 cabinet meeting that he obtained from the Interior Ministry.

“The government said after the meeting that the cabinet members had an intense discussion on the issue,” he said, “but in fact, the minister of trade industry and energy and the minister of science, ICT and future planning did not say a word.”

Joo Hyung-hwan, the energy minister, and Choi Yang-hee, the future planning minister, who attended the meeting, were both holdovers of the previous administration, as Moon’s nominees had not taken office at the time. Last week, Moon named Paik Un-gyu, a renewable energy expert, to become the energy minister, making clear his intention to push forward the nuclear phase-out.

The Blue House and the Prime Minister’s Office rejected the criticisms on Wednesday. Hong Nam-ki, minister of government policy coordination, said the June 27 cabinet meeting discussed fewer items than ordinary meetings but the session was about 30 minutes longer than usual. “The discussion on the Shin Kori 5 and 6 took more than 20 minutes,” he said, adding that various ideas on how to reflect the opinions of local residents and how to persuade the public were discussed.
But the Prime Minister’s Office did not make the entire transcript public.

A senior Blue House official also said the discussion was lengthy. “It was long enough to take up four pages in a transcript,” he said. “The Interior Ministry normally offers an excerpt, so it could have been misunderstood that the decision was made only after two members’ remarks.”

“Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Kim Young-choon spoke, and other participants also expressed their opinions,” Hong said, but he refused to elaborate on who else participated in the discussion.

Hong also admitted that deciding the fate of the two reactors was not in the original agenda for the meeting and that no vice minister meeting took place to review the issue in advance. “It was introduced spontaneously,” he said.

The opposition parties challenged the decision-making process. “The people were deceived and the confidence in a national policy was destroyed,” Rep. Lee Hyun-jae of the Liberty Korea Party. “The decision-making process infringed upon the Constitution. We demand a parliamentary investigation.”

Some in the ruling Democratic Party also showed concerns that it was inappropriate for the administration to stop construction, which would cost 8.6 trillion won ($7.56 billion), in a hurry. “It is unfortunate that the decision was made without enough discussion when there is no minister in charge,” Rep. Hong Ik-pyo of the Democratic Party said. “But I do not agree that the decision is illegitimate.”

At the National Assembly’s Trade, Industry and Energy Committee, Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo of the Democratic Party also said the state affairs advisory committee, which acts as a transition team for Moon after he took office on May 10, had enough reviews and discussions on the issue.

He also said the government’s decision to stop construction is not final. “We want to have a thorough review on the safety issue while temporarily stopping the construction,” Kim said. “Depending on the conclusion, we can push it forward or scrap it.”

Meanwhile, experts expressed concerns about the serious aftermath of Moon’s nuclear phase-out plan at a roundtable hosted by Rep. Kim Moo-sung of the Bareun Party on Wednesday.

“The government said the electricity price is expected to go up by 20 percent, but my calculation showed that it will go up by 330 percent by 2030,” said Professor Hwang Il-soon, professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, basing his argument on the precedents of Europe and Japan. “During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the government shifted to its policy to gas power plants, and that led to the blackouts [during the Lee Myung-bak government].”

Lee Ik-hwan, former president of the KEPCO Nuclear Fuel Company, also said an average of 30 percent of the price of industrial products comes from electricity costs. “Will we be able to export anything when the electricity cost is doubled?” he asked.

BY SER MYO-JA, CHA SE-HYEON, KO JUNG-AE [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]