South Korea’s Nuclear Standoff

Nuclear energy has always been a complex issue in East Asia — particularly in Korea and Japan. During WWII, nuclear weapons were used against Japan, and recently in 2011, Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant had a meltdown due to environmental causes, completely overwhelming safety procedures. While the full scope of the collateral damage is yet to be determined, the meltdown already serves as a deterrent to the South Korean nuclear energy industry.

South Korea is the fifth largest country in relation to nuclear generation. Since the first reactor was operational in 1978, 19 new reactors have been built in the Republic of Korea. The nuclear industry in South Korea alone accounts for 24b USD. Indeed, nuclear energy is both lucrative and energy efficient. However, since the Fukushima Daiichi power plant meltdown, nuclear energy has become a fiercely contested subject in South Korean politics: so much so that the commissioning of Shin Kori 4, South Korea’s newest nuclear power plant, has been delayed for 10 months.

President Moon Jae Im’s policy towards energy favors phasing out of nuclear energy and coal, due to safety concerns and environmental costs respectively, moving towards renewables. Yet as a country with limited natural resources, South Korea’s energy consumption is heavily reliant on efficient nuclear energy and cheap coal. Whilst President Moon has garnered a lot of support for his policies towards renewables, the country must deal with the fact that construction of Shin Kori 5 and Shin Kori 6 are still underway. President Moon’s attempt to lower nuclear energy reliance and phase out nuclear energy in 40 years must be analyzed in stark contrast to the reality of the situation. As of now, nuclear energy accounts for 22% of the ROK’s generation capacity and 29% of the electrical output. Phasing out of such efficient nuclear energy, as well as replacing coal in favor of renewables and LNG, has its costs. For the same output, LNG is nearly twice the price of nuclear energy — demonstrating the challenges of financing this costly shift. Additionally, critics to President Moon claim that such phasing out will cause power shortages across the country.

Despite this criticism, President Moon’s party claims legitimacy in addressing the potential dangers to Korean citizens. Even with safety measures in play, there are nearly 4 million residents near Ulsan — the city in which the Shin Kori nuclear power plants are operational. With even a slight malfunction, the environmental and human cost could be disastrous. However, the cost of the construction of the power plant itself needs to be taken into consideration. State-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear power estimates the construction of the Shin Kori 4 cost 3.1b USD and the Financial Times describes that it could be costing the country 1.5b KRW a day. Regardless of how the situation plays out, the cost of each alternative is incredibly high and in devising a solution, South Korea will need to address its priorities. For the longer the country waits, the costlier it gets.