Korea debating whether nuclear reliance is wise

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Korea debating whether nuclear reliance is wise

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Environmental activists protest in the sea off a nuclear plant in Wolseong, Gyeongju, on March 23 to demand that old reactors be shut down. Despite growing concerns in Korea about the safety of atomic energy, the government has announced it will continue to expand its nuclear capacity after increasing safety measures. Provided by the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement


The terrifying chain of accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has given Koreans pause about their dependence on 21 nuclear reactors for almost 32 percent of the country’s electricity.

Following the disasters in Fukushima, the first reaction was for environmentalists to demand that the country’s older reactors be closed down. Then the partisan divide arose, with the opposition criticizing the pro-business, conservative government for over-reliance on nuclear energy, and the government defending itself by saying a growing industrial economy like Korea’s can’t be chintzy about power.

But now the argument is broadening, with people asking more questions about a wider range of issues nuclear and non. How safe are Korea’s reactors compared to those in Japan or other countries? Do Korean consumers and industries use too much power - and is electricity too cheap here? Are investments in nuclear power crowding out alternatives, such as wind and solar energy?

The ultimate fate of the Fukushima Daiichi plant won’t be known for weeks or months. But as in many countries around the world, its travails have started a debate in Korea on nuclear power that is destined to go on for a long time.


The government’s position

Since the first nuclear reactor began operating in 1978, Korea has tirelessly built more.

Korea currently operates a total of 21 reactors at four plants - Gori, Yeonggwang, Uljin and Wolseong. As of 2010, 31.4 percent of Korea’s total electricity was supplied from nuclear plants generating 144.8 billion kilowatt hours. Korea’s nuclear capacity is the sixth largest in the world.

By 2022, the government plans to build 12 more reactors, increasing the nuclear share to 48 percent. More could also be built to increase the stake to 59 percent by 2030.

When he took office in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak made low-carbon, green growth a signature campaign pledge, pinning his environmentalism on nuclear power and reducing the fossil fuel consumption, as many countries and leaders did at the time. That emphasis is looking less environmentally friendly now, and possibly hazardous to the country.

“I agree that concerns have grown about the safety of nuclear energy since Japan’s crisis,” said Kim Sang-hyup, secretary to the president for the national future and vision and the architect of Lee’s low-carbon, green growth policy. “But honestly, nuclear power is the most realistic option for Korea at the moment.”

The administration announced on March 28 - 17 days after the earthquake and tsunami damaged Japan’s nuclear plant - that Korea will continue to expand its nuclear capacity to maintain stable energy supplies and fight against climate change.

“To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial to develop technology to lower emission from fossil fuel and use clean energy,” Kim said. “But we have to admit that with technical limits and low economic effectiveness, there is a limit for renewable energy to wholly replace thermal and nuclear power generation.”

Kim said global energy demand will grow 36 percent from 2008 to 2035, while reserves of fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas and coal will eventually run out.

“We will have to pay more efforts to assure safety while pushing forward the already announced expansion of nuclear capacity,” he said, adding Korea’s nuclear safety record is the world’s best.

The opposition’s retort

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The opposition quickly seized on the issue as a fighting point.

“The government must completely reconsider its energy supply plan focusing on nuclear energy,” said Democratic Party Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu in a radio address to the nation on March 30. He said the time has come for Korea to contemplate the path of nuclear-free growth.

“From now on, safety and environment will be the priority of the Democratic Party’s nuclear energy policy,” Sohn said. “In a long term, we will also prepare for the end of the nuclear-powered era.”

Environmentalists pointed out that liberal politicians now protesting nuclear expansion were, in fact, supporters of building more reactors during the past liberal administrations,

How safe are Korea’s plants?

The Lee administration backs its pro-nuclear policy with the safety record of Korea’s nuclear plants.

Quoting statistics from the World Association of Nuclear Operators, Kim said only two unplanned shutdowns were reported in 2009 at Korea’s nuclear power plants, an average of 0.1 per reactor, the lowest among the major nuclear power players.

An “unplanned shutdown” is the halting of the operations of a reactor because of mechanical or human operational failure, according to the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. It is a measurement of how safely a power plant operates.

In 2009, the United States recorded 0.3 unplanned shutdowns per reactor per year, while France recorded 0.86. Japan and Germany both recorded 0.17.

The Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power said the country’s safety record is the result of a real effort to improve the industry. Korea experienced an average of five unplanned shutdowns on each reactor until the mid 1980s, but the safety level came down to the one-point level in the 1990s and below one after 1998, according to the state-run utility.

Using too much power?

The nuclear debate has gone beyond the issue of how Korea creates its power to how much the nation uses.

The Democratic Party’s Ahn said structural problems in Korea’s power industry have fueled the country’s high dependency on nuclear energy.

“We are using electricity so much because it’s cheap,” Ahn said.

According to the government, the average electricity consumption per person was 7,607 kilowatts in 2010, higher than that of Japan. While Korea was the world’s 13th largest economy, it was the 11th largest energy consumer, the report said.

“Instead of trying to catch up with consumption, the time has come for us to reduce consumption,” Ahn said. “I am not saying we should turn light bulbs and computers off. I am saying the investment should be made to drastically improve energy efficiency, not to build new reactors.”

Ahn said Korea’s homes are already highly energy efficient, but the business community needs to improve its efficiency. The government’s focus on growth, fueled with low electricity prices for industry, has triggered companies and factories to consume power too generously, he said.

According to data from the Korea Electric Power Corporation, the average industrial electricity rate for Korea was $0.058 per kilowatt per hour, half of Japan’s $0.158 per §Oh. It is also lower than $0.068 per §Oh for the United States, $0.107 per §Oh for France and $0.135 per §Oh for the United Kingdom.

“In advanced countries, conglomerates and industrial leaders invest time and money to improve their energy efficiency,” Ahn said.

What about renewables?

When it comes to relying on renewable energy sources, as opposed to fossil fuels and nuclear, Korea is way behind the rest of the developed world. According to a December report by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance OECD member countries get an average of 14.3 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, while Korea’s figure was only 1.5 percent. While the average share of nuclear power for the OECD members was 31.5 percent, Korea supplied 34.7 percent of its electricity from atomic energy.

“Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind appeared to be unfeasible right at this moment,” said Ahn Jae-hoon, a nuclear energy specialist at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, “but a decade of investment will make them more feasible.”

“Korea is already highly dependent upon nuclear energy,” said the DP’s Ahn. “The government said it will build more nuclear plants, but it will never be enough to keep up with the consumption. If this pattern continues without considerable investment and research efforts to find alternate energy sources, it will simply be a matter of time before the country is completely reliant on nuclear energy. And then what? We must think about a future beyond that point.”


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]


한글 관련 기사 [경향신문]

‘월성 1호기’ 수명연장, 폐차 운행하는 격

한수원 “日 사고는 재해 탓” 이르면 올 하반기에 결정
주민·환경단체 “재앙” 반대

후쿠시마 원전사고를 계기로 경북 경주에서는 한동안 잠잠하던 월성원전 1호기의 수명연장 논의가 활발하다. 수명연장을 반대하는 목소리가 다시 커진 것이다. 후쿠시마 원전 1호기가 설계수명(40년) 만료 이후 10년 연장운전 허가를 받은 지 불과 한 달 만에 사고가 났기 때문이다.

한국수력원자력(이하 한수원)과 월성원자력본부(이하 원자력본부)는 월성원전 1호기(발전용량 680㎿)의 설계수명 만료(2013년 3월) 후 10년 연장운전을 위한 안전성 평가보고서를 2009년 12월 교육과학기술부에 제출했다. 당시에도 원전 주변 주민들은 ‘월성 1호기 운영현황 및 향후 가동계획 설명회’를 두 차례나 무산시킬 만큼 반발이 심했다. 원전 1호기의 수명연장은 총 21개 분야 131개 평가 항목으로 구성된 평가보고서를 토대로 원자력 관련 규제기관과 전문가들의 검토를 거쳐 이르면 올 하반기 중 결정된다.

하지만 월성원전 주변 주민들과 환경단체는 “원전의 수명연장이 초래할 재앙을 미연에 막겠다”며 반대 활동을 강화하고 있다. 원전 주변 경주시 양남면 주민들로 구성된 ‘월성1호기 수명연장 반대추진위원회’는 1호기의 수명연장 반대 서명운동을 벌이고 있다. 추진위는 청와대와 교과부에도 이 같은 주민들의 뜻을 전달할 예정이다. 추진위는 “일본의 낡은 원전에서 사고가 커지면서 수명연장에 대한 반대여론이 높다”며 “1호기가 설계수명을 모두 채우기 전에 압력관 교체작업을 하는 것도 문제”라고 말했다.

한수원과 원자력본부는 “후쿠시마 원전사고는 자연재해에 의한 것이지, 수명연장 때문이 아니다”라고 강조하고 있지만, 주민들의 불안감을 누그러뜨리기에는 역부족이다. 원자력본부는 경주시 양남면, 양북면, 감포읍 등 원전 주변지역 주민대표들이 함께 참여하는 협의체를 통해 문제를 풀기를 희망하고 있지만, 협의체 구성 자체가 쉽지 않을 것으로 전망된다.

경주지역 원전 전문가들도 “수명연장만은 절대 안된다”고 입을 모으고 있다. 경주대 황성춘 교수(토목공학)는 “원전의 수명연장은 주변 주민들의 수용 여부가 가장 중요한데 공감대 형성이 전혀 이뤄지지 않은 상태”라며 “월성1호기는 캐나다 캔두형인데 지금까지 수명연장을 통해 안전성이 검증된 사례가 없다”고 말했다.

김익중 동국대 교수(의학미생물학)도 “후쿠시마 원전 폭발은 노후 원전의 위험성을 고스란히 보여주는 것”이라고 말했다. 그는 “원전 1호기의 수명연장을 위한 압력관 교체는 마치 낡은 자동차의 엔진 피스톤만 교체하고 계속 운전하는 것과 같다”고 덧붙였다.

경주지역 20여개 시민사회단체로 구성된 ‘경주 핵안전연대’는 “월성 1호기의 수명연장 시도를 즉각 철회하고 영구폐쇄하라”고 거듭 촉구했다. 그러나 한수원과 원자력본부는 “1호기의 계속 운전 여부는 평가보고서를 토대로 정부가 검토·평가한 결과에 따를 수밖에 없다”고 밝혀 갈등은 쉽게 가라앉지 않을 것으로 예상된다.

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