Nuclear phase-out sends towns into a tailspin

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Nuclear phase-out sends towns into a tailspin


Left: An apartment construction site in Uljin County, North Gyeongsang, was abandoned after the plan to build the Shin Hanul-3 and Shin Hanul-4 nuclear reactors in the county was scrapped. Right: Residents in Uljin County stage a rally to demand that the construction of the reactors be restarted. [KOWN HYUK-JO,YONAP]

Nuclear decommissioning is casting a dark shadow over the local economy in regions that once hosted nuclear power plants. The past few months have proved that once plants shut down, it is only a matter of time before residents start to pack their things and leave town. This is what happened in Uljin County and Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang.

Construction on two nuclear power reactors in Uljin County — the Shin Hanul-3 and Shin Hanul-4 — was stopped last year, and in Gyeongju, the aging Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor has been idle since May and is scheduled to close soon.

The nuclear phase-out plan has brought with it a shortage of key government subsidies and a decrease in jobs in these regions of North Gyeongsang. The people who once worked in the construction and maintenance sector for these nuclear plants are moving away, leaving apartments empty with no residents to occupy them. The decrease in population has hurt businesses.

Residents of the region generally hold unfavorable views of the government’s nuclear phase-out plan.

On Nov. 6 near the Shin Hanul nuclear plant in Uljin County, apartment construction sites are barren. Rotten wood and rusty pipes are left scattered all around the site. The remaining walls that surround the place are covered with cracks and look as if a stiff breeze could knock them over. This apartment complex was targeted at workers constructing the Shin Hanul nuclear reactors.

The construction of this 120-unit housing complex started in 2016. The original plan was to house the increasing number of construction workers that were needed to build Shin Hanul-3 and Shin Hanul-4 over the course of seven to eight years. However, these plans dissipated once the government announced that the new Shin Hanul reactors were canceled. The site is now abandoned.

Residents living in Uljin County are complaining that business has been suffering ever since the nuclear phase-out plan. According to the Uljin County government, last year a significant number of construction workers opted to stay in Uljin after construction of the first and second Shin Hanul nuclear reactors finished. They expected to be hired to construct the third and fourth reactors. However, when the government canceled the construction plans, the workers had no reason to stay.

“[Before], my restaurant would be filled with workers, but now it’s mostly empty,” said Jeong Im-sun, the owner of a restaurant located near the nuclear power plant.

The residents of Uljin County are not the only ones disappointed by the lack of vitality in the neighborhood. The Uljin County government is also facing problems because of the nuclear phase-out plan. The decrease in nuclear energy production at the Shin Hanul plant also brought along a decrease in government subsidies.

The county lost the key subsidy it received for constructing a new power plant. The annual budget for Uljin County next year is only 558 billion won ($492 million), 170 billion less than this year’s budget, which was 728 billion. County governmental officials say that this shortage was enough to put a stop to future projects, like building ports for yachts and sailboats.

The plan to build four nuclear reactors in Uljin was first established when former President Kim Dae-jung was in office. Back then, the county opposed the plan, as there were already six other nuclear reactors in the area.

After 10 years of negotiation between the government and Uljin County, the plan was finally finalized, and the county was scheduled to receive a government subsidy of 280 billion won. As of now, Shin Hanul-1 and Shin Hanul-2 have been completed while the third and fourth reactors were in the middle of construction when they were canceled.

The Uljin County government increased their yearly budget, as they expected governmental subsidies to come along with the construction of the third and fourth nuclear power plants. The county government invested in restaurants and housing in anticipation of the growing population that was supposed to come along with the reactors’ construction. All of their plans were crushed when the Moon Jae-in administration decided to phase out nuclear power.

“This [issue] is a life and death problem for us,” said Jeon Chan-geol, the governor of Uljin County. “About 1,000 people moved away from Uljin County this year. As the population decreases, the amount of empty housing increases. Local businesses are dying without customers.”

“Ministers and vice-ministers, even the prime minister, came over to Uljin County to convince us to accept the construction of the four Shin Hanul plants. However, no one came along when the government decided that they were going to stop the project,” said the governor. “What we want [from the government] is a chance for our voices to be heard and for the nuclear phase-out plan to incorporate the reality of Uljin County.”

“The negotiation between the central government and the county government was why [Uljin County] decided to go ahead with the construction,” Jeon said. “With the promise of subsidies, the county government started administrating plans. But now, without the governmental subsidies, the local economy is suffering.”

In Gyeongju, another city hit hard by the nuclear phase-out plan, many businesses have shuttered. By the looks of it, at least one out of two shops was out of business. There was no discrimination when it came to a bad economy. Everything from pizza stores to local dentist clinics were shut down.

“There used to be over 170 businesses open and running in Naah-ri, [a small village not far from Gyeongju], but now there are only about 40 left,” said Kim Hong-ki, the secretary general of five towns adjacent to the Wolsong nuclear power plant. The fast food restaurant that he manages has also seen a decrease in customers, and he had to let go of his four part-time employees. Kim said that his whole family is now making up for the absence of his employees and that he couldn’t dare to employ another one because of the minimum wage increase.

The residents here blame the region’s economic slump on two factors. The direct reason was the Wolsong nuclear power plant being shut down earlier than expected. The number of workers employed at the plant decreased, as did the number of contractors the plant did business with.

The indirect reason, according to Kim, is because of the negative image of nuclear power plants that the government has been pushing.

“When Moon Jae-in became president, he spread a misbelief that nuclear power plants were unstable and disgusting,” Kim said. “Many believe that the Wolsong-1 reactor was shut down because of safety issues, which is not true. This is why tourists who come to see the Munmudaewangneung [The underwater tomb of King Munmu] or the Jusangjeolli cliff don’t stick around [because they believe that the nuclear power plants nearby are unsafe]. Business is nonexistent because of this.”

The residents living near the Wolsong nuclear power plant have voiced their discomfort with the decision to shut down the plant, and said there wasn’t enough opportunity for discussion. Gyeongju was visited by former Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Baek Woon-kyu in September last year, when Gyeongju was struck by an earthquake. He held a meeting with local officials to discuss the aftermath of the earthquake.

There, talk about shutting down the Wolsong nuclear power plant was brought up as well. The local officials that attended the meetings voiced concerns about how the shutdown might negatively impact the local economy.

A week later, an official letter from former Minister Baek was sent to the association of five towns that Kim represents. In the letter, Baek promised the residents that they were not going to decide on shutting down the nuclear power plant ahead of time without negotiating it with local officials. However, when the early shutdown was decided upon, no local government official was included in the decision-making process.

“How are we supposed to believe an administration that doesn’t even keep its written promise?” asked Shin Su-cheol, the head of the Kimpo Development Council. “In response to this decision, [the committee] staged a protest near the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy Complex in Sejong. We finally achieved establishing a communication channel between our group and the government, but I’m not entirely convinced that the government is willing to listen to us, especially when the head of our channel to the government keeps changing to someone of lower status.”

The city of Gyeongju is also not sure where it will store nuclear waste, as by 2020 all of its storage facilities will be full. It takes two years to create a storage facility, meaning that construction needs to start right now for it to open in 2020. However, the current government is delaying the construction of nuclear waste storage facilities.

“We are left to wonder if the government is trying to shut Wolsong-2, 3 and 4,” said Nam Hong, a member of a civilian committee that oversees measures regarding the nuclear power plant. “If the second, third and fourth Wolsong nuclear plant is shut down, then there is going to be a shortage in electricity production, not to mention the increase in taxes and the decrease in billions of won worth of governmental subsidies. The loss will be too much for the local government to handle.”

Some are saying the problem can be easily solved if the central government provided financial support to these local governments. However, both Uljin County and Gyeongju have built their administrative infrastructure around the existence of the nuclear power plants for over 40 years.

According to some analyses, over half of Uljin County’s GRDP (gross regional domestic product) is related to the nuclear power plant. Simple compensation will not cover the losses that these areas are going through.

The current government, however, is still rushing ahead with its controversial nuclear phase-out.

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