No overreach, pleaseThe South Korean government proved to be a good sport when it decided to put to a vote its proposal to halt construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors, as part of its policy of weaning Korea off nuclear power. In the snap presidential campaign, President Moon Jae-in vowed to not extend the lifespan of older reactors and stop building new ones.
The country’s first reactor, Kori 1, was permanently unplugged in June. No more reactors will complete their originally designated operating lifespan during Moon’s five-year term. But Moon recently said the government would decommission the country’s second-oldest reactor, Wolsong 1 — which was granted an extension to 2022 after refurbishment, upon reaching the end of its original lifespan in 2012 — after studying supply and demand conditions. A lawsuit contesting the government’s extension of its operation is pending in court.
The Moon administration has basically stopped commissioning new reactors. It temporarily suspended design and construction of six reactors planned by earlier governments.
But the two Shin Kori reactors were nearly 30 percent complete. The government wanted to halt construction but it would be costly. So it came up with the idea of forming a panel of members of the general public and asking them to make the decision. A committee that managed the panel picked 471 people randomly and had them deliberate the pros and cons before asking their opinions in a series of votes. The panel reached the conclusion that the government should resume construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors.
The finding was a load off the government’s shoulders. Moon’s campaign promise of stopping construction on the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors was highly controversial because of the huge economic cost and risk for energy supply, as well as potential damage to the country’s prized nuclear reactor technology, which it has tried exporting with some success. The Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors are being built on Korea’s indigenous third-generation Advanced Power Reactor (APR) 1400 design. The same design helped Korea win an $18.6 billion deal to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates. South Korea has been pitching its technology overseas based on its UAE deal. The panel’s go-ahead has been a lifesaver for the APR 1400 technology and our nuclear industry.
Moreover, the government won strong support for its phase-out campaign. The commission, whose role was initially confined to canvassing the effectiveness of stopping the Shin Kori 5 and 6 construction, also asked the panelists their opinions on the phase-out plan. The poll showed more approval for an incremental phase-out. The People’s Party criticized the commission for overreaching its role.
Kim Ji-hyung, who administered the committee and poll proceedings, said that the outlook on whether the number of nuclear reactors should be kept at its current level or increased played a key part in deciding whether to restart construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors, after experts from the industry strongly argued against the halt on the grounds of repercussions for long-term prospects.
In the final vote, 53.2 percent voted for a reduction in reactors while 35.5 percent were happy with the status quo (or no change), and 9.7 percent supported additional reactors. In other words, the poll ended up approving the government’s scheme to stop construction of new reactors, while recommending a resumption of construction of the two reactors in Shin Kori, a somewhat contradictory result.
Proponents of the nuclear-free policy could argue whether the findings reflect the overall public view. But the matter is too complex to jump to conclusions. Some of the panelists who changed their minds over the course of the deliberations to support resumption of the construction could have chosen the reduction option out of a feeling of psychological balance.
Another noticeable part of the debate is this: As for the measures the government must take after resuming the construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6, the panelists recommended stronger safety standards (33.1 percent), an increased investment in renewable energy (27.6 percent), and new ways to deal with spent nuclear fuel (25.4 percent). Only 13.3 percent advised the government to move forward with its denuclearization policy. That means they did not think that denuclearization should be rushed if authorities can ensure the safety of the plants and until they are ready with alternative renewable energy supplies.
The panel’s activities proved to be productive in solving a highly contested issue through a democratic procedure, however novel. But the conflict will not go away if the findings are interpreted differently by opposing parties. The commission and panel’s role was restricted to deciding the fate of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors. Therefore, its findings must not be stretched to sway overall energy policy. If the government really wants to push ahead with its denuclearization policy, it must start a separate procedure. That is the only way it can earn legitimacy for its campaign.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 23, Page 32
*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.