The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in made an unlikely remark last week about the role of nuclear reactors in achieving carbon neutrality during his summit with Hungarian President Janos Ader. Given the ramifications of the comment, the Blue House first refused to comment on it until it later reluctantly admitted to it. The presidential office added that the president’s commitment to wean the country off nuclear energy remains intact. The explanation is not just incongruous, but also indecent as it could be seen as discourteous to the summit.
Moon’s comment drew the spotlight as it went against his steadfast commitment to phase out nuclear reactors. The inconsistency, however, has come up every time the government tried to pitch Korea’s nuclear reactor technology abroad. On both carbon and nuclear reactor issues, the government is steadfast in the goal of phasing out nuclear reactors, but cannot but accept the reality of the lack of feasibility of the policy.
The Blue House hates to admit it, but the international community agrees that carbon neutrality is impossible to achieve without nuclear reactors. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a laureate of the 2007 Nobel Prize, found in a study of greenhouse gas emissions in the life cycles of various electricity generation sources that a nuclear reactor emits 12 grams (0.4 ounces) of CO2, sharply lower than the 27 grams from solar panels and 24 grams from wind power. Solar and wind farms do not emit carbon while generating power, but the production of panels and rotor blades — and their scrapping — require a considerable amount of fossil fuel.
Korea should raise the share of renewable energy, but yanking it up from the current 6 percent range to 60 to 70 percent over the next 30 years is impossible. Experts say that to meet the goal, a space double the size of Jeju Island would have to be covered by solar panels. Geographic restrictions from inconsistent wind and sunlight are another drawback. The 2050 Carbon Neutrality Commission proposes leveraging a grid network across China and Russia. But that also is not plausible, given the security issues with those countries.
The phase-out policy already shows internal fissures. Chung Jae-hoon, president of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, has been calling for the resumption of the suspended construction of the Shin Hanul No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. Song Young-gil, head of the ruling Democratic Party, is also for the idea. Lee Jae-myung, the ruling party’s presidential candidate, backs the phase-out policy, but whether he can achieve his “energy highway” campaign platform without reactors is questionable. When Choo Mi-ae, who ran against Lee in the party primary, proposed signing a contract to uphold the reactor phase-out policy, Lee brushed it aside, saying such a move was not necessary. Under a new president, the nuclear phase-out policy inevitably will be revisited.
But the transition could stoke conflict and confusion. President Moon, who holds the key, must pave the way to lessen the burden on the incoming government before it’s too late.