In May 2017, Moon Jae-in became President of South Korea during a snap election following an abuse of power scandal that saw his predecessor arrested. During his brief campaign, Moon gained support through his promise to phase out both coal and nuclear power, whilst increasing the share of renewables in South Korea to 20% by 2030.

In a speech marking the shutdown of Kori 1, a nuclear plant opened in 1978, Moon confirmed his position. “We will abolish our nuclear-centred energy policy and move towards a nuclear-free era,” he said. “We will completely scrap construction plans for new nuclear reactors that are currently underway.”

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Currently, nuclear power accounts for 165TWh of South Korea’s power mix, and coal 237TWh. “To phase out both would require a major change and presents a number of challenges,” says World Nuclear Association senior communication manager Jonathan Cobb. “The combined share for coal and nuclear in the current mix is too much for renewables to replace alone, especially because massive amounts of energy storage would be needed to provide a reliable supply.”

There are 23 reactors in South Korea and whilst six are due to shut within the next decade, nine have been opened since 2000, and a further five are currently under construction. With such a large, young fleet, can South Korea really be expected to go nuclear-free?

The citizens’ decision

In order to determine the future of nuclear power in South Korea, a government poll was set up to gauge public opinion. The Citizens’ Jury was asked two questions: whether the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear reactors should be constructed and how much nuclear the country should rely on in the future.

In June 2016, the then government granted permission for the construction of two new nuclear power plants, Shin Kori 5 and 6, to Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP). The two APR1400 units would add 1400MWe units to South Korea’s grid by 2022. However, construction was halted following Moon’s appointment to office.

After months of deliberation, the Citizens’ Jury – a panel of 471 randomly selected citizens – determined that construction should continue, with 59.5% voting in favour of proceeding.

“The second question asked should we rely on nuclear less, should we rely on it the same, should we have more nuclear?,” explains Cobb. “The majority said we should rely on nuclear less, but the question wasn’t saying that we should phase it out, just reduce it. That got an answer that kind of supported the phase-out policy, even though it was some potentially clever questioning that came to that conclusion.”

As such, the nuances of interpretation are not clearly represented by the 53.2% vote in favour of reducing South Korea’s reliance on nuclear and the 9.7% vote to increase reliance. Responses to the poll seem contradictory, both approving construction of more nuclear reactors and highlighting the unpopularity of nuclear power. Whilst it is possible to put some of this down to the nature of the questions, opinion on nuclear power in South Korea is becoming increasingly split.

Weighing up the argument

There are a number of reasons why anti-nuclear sentiment may be growing in South Korea, one in particular is concerns over safety. “I think it’s a combination of things; one is that South Korea is geographically close to Japan,” says Cobb. “There are similarities in terms of how they have both developed nuclear power; they’re both countries that have got their own nuclear industry, so I think that there was concern in relation to Fukushima.”

South Korea is prone to earthquakes. In 2016, a 5.8 magnitude quake, registered as the strongest earthquake in the country, hit the southern regions, increasing fears of the nuclear fleet’s ability to withstand such events. A large number of people live in close proximity to reactors in South Korea, with almost four million residents living within 30km of the Shin Kori site, for example. Worries over the safety of nuclear technology have led to anti-nuclear lobbying and protests held in Seoul. Also, anti-nuclear sentiment is filtering into popular culture with films reflecting the public anxiety, such as Pandora, a Korean-directed film in which workers must save the country from a massive reactor meltdown.

But there remain economic and environmental arguments for continuing with nuclear power.

In particular, the demands of phasing out both coal and nuclear without simply increasing reliance on natural gas calls into question the feasibility of the transition without ultimately increasing CO2 emissions. In 2015, South Korea pledged to cut its emissions by 37%.

“In France, a 2014 bill was passed which set a target of reducing the nuclear contribution from the current 75% to 50% by 2025,” says Cobb. “In December 2017, President Macron announced that this policy would be reviewed, with an emphasis on boosting renewables and using nuclear with a priority on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He was reported as saying ‘What did the Germans do when they shut all their nuclear in one go? They developed a lot of renewables but they also massively reopened thermal and coal. They worsened their CO2 footprint, it wasn’t good for the planet. So I won’t do that.’”

Will we see a German-style energy transition?

South Korea is not the first to propose a phase out of nuclear; countries including Sweden, Switzerland and the UK have all pledged to move away from the controversial technology. However, while promises are common, enacting them is far rarer.

“The track record with countries that do enact these kinds of policies is that the decision to close gets deferred in many cases,” says Cobb. “Sweden had a referendum in 1980 and yet nuclear still plays a significant part in its energy mix. Plants are now closing from an operation point of view, or sometimes an economic point of view, but certainly not based on a political choice.”

A president’s term in South Korea lasts for five years, limiting the security of a future nuclear phase out. Moon’s predecessor was pro-nuclear power, and there remain many in South Korea and around the world who look to nuclear to provide a clean and reliable source of energy. Under Moon’s plan, nuclear reactors will live out their lifespans, during which time there is no guarantee that political opinion won’t shift again.

“It’s a policy that is not intending to accelerate the closure programme, as in Germany,” clarifies Cobb. “They’ve had newbuilds in South Korea much more recently than in Germany, their reactors are younger. The proposal is to have the standard operating life for those reactors, 40 or 45 years, and then they wouldn’t have their license to operate extended. But a whole bunch of their reactors were built in this century so we’re talking about reactors operating well into this century, possibly beyond 2050, and of course that’s a very long time over which energy policy can be reassessed.”

South Korea will not see a German-style energy transition, but instead, nuclear is likely to play a role in its energy mix until the middle of the century. Beyond that, its role is less clear and more dependent on increased adoption of renewables and natural gas, in the ongoing journey to developing safe, reliable and clean power networks.