Too many risks with no reward
The government recently revealed a plan to build two more nuclear reactors and increase the total number to 36 by 2029. The plan raised debate about whether we need more nuclear power facilities. Advocates claim they are necessary sources of sustainable power and critical to reducing carbon emissions. Opponents say the environmental costs of the facilities are too great, and claim that the present power supply will be sufficient if consumption is more efficient.
Twenty-three nuclear reactors are in operation, five under construction, and six being planned in Korea. Yet, the government now wants to add two more to the fleet. Do we really need more nuclear power facilities?
Korea’s electricity consumption and nuclear reactor reliance is already dangerously beyond its land capacity. Korea’s gross domestic product ranked 13th in the world in terms of purchase power parity in 2012. But it was the world’s eighth in power consumption on the national level and 11th on individual level. The only economy bigger than us that consumed more electricity per head was the United States.
Korea’s reactor record is more staggering. In terms of capacity and fuel rods, Korea is the sixth largest power in commercial nuclear. The rank would move up to fourth if the planned reactors are included. The density of reactors compared to land size is the world’s greatest.
There are only 11 complexes across the world that house more than six reactors. Korean nuclear sites Gori, Wolseong, Uljin, and Yeonggwang are among them. They are also too close to residential areas. Over 3.4 million live around Gori in the country’s second largest city of Busan and 1.33 million around Wolseong along the North Gyeongsang coast. Because nuclear plants are crammed into a small plot of land in densely populated areas, an accident could be catastrophic for both nearby areas and the entire country.
Even when reactors run by strict safety regulations, minute levels of radiation inevitably seep out through the air and water. The increase of thyroid cancers in residents living near nuclear reactors may not be entirely coincidental.
If electricity consumption is reduced, there would be less need to build transmission towers. The potential danger nuclear reactors can pose must not be traded with risks from carbon emissions and climate change.
Furthermore, we may not need the extra power promised by the reactors. Household consumption has been declining, and growth in the industrial sector also has slowed. The industrial sector takes up 54 percent of power consumption. Due to the slowdown in industrial field, overall energy consumption rose 0.6 percent last year, slowing from growths of 1.8 percent in 2013 and 2.5 percent in 2012.
Manufacturing activities have lost steam due to sluggish demand on the external front. Electricity bills were kept cheap in the country because it kept building new facilities. Even as there are no structural factors to suggest growth in future demand, the government wants to plan new reactors with expectations that demand will grow 2.2 percent annually until 2029. It has learned nothing despite the controversy over nuclear reactor safety after the Fukushima crisis and conflict over transmission tower construction. It also paid little heed to the residents of Samcheok who voted against the plan.
Instead of increasing supply, it would be better to try to reduce consumption through rationalization and saving. The utility charge system needs to be rationalized in order to make consumers more efficient and discreet in their use of electricity. The growing need for efficient use could spur development and growth in the smart grid industry. Nuclear reactors are no longer cheap ways to make power. The potential social cost is too big.
For whom does the government want to build more reactors? Does it expect the people to believe in its crisis control capabilities from the disastrous way it dealt with the Sewol ferry sinking and latest epidemic outbreak? Nuclear power technology as underscored by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents can be beyond human control. Reactors pose too great a threat if an actual problem occurs.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor of the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University.
by Yun Sun-jin