Shutting Down South Korea’s First Nuclear Power Plant

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In June, for the first time, South Korea’s denuclearization movement permanently shut down its oldest nuclear reactor. Now, it is blocking the establishment of a new nuclear plant. If it wins, its victories can pave the way to ending nuclear power in South Korea (Korea): Old nuclear reactors would be retired at the end of their designated service lives and a moratorium would be placed on new nuclear plants. While the denuclearization movement faces great challenges in dismantling Korea’s nuclear power system and changing its energy policies, in the post-Fukushima nuclear meltdown era, they might just win.

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Korea’s nuclear energy is rooted in dictatorship. The first nuclear power reactor, the Gori Nuclear Reactor 1, was built during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship. In 1969, a plan was made to build two nuclear reactors. Protests from long-time residents at the nuclear plant site meant little under the dictatorship, and construction began the following year in 1970.[ref]한흥구. 핵발전소 짓기도 전에 핵무기가 갖고 싶었다. 한겨레 http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/society/society_general/572448.html[/ref] Gori Nuclear Reactor 1 was up and running by 1978. After Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979, followed by a brief democratic spring and a coup d’etat, Chun Doo Hwan came into power and continued building nuclear reactors. He expanded existing plants and established new sites. The four nuclear plants[ref]Gori, Wolseong, Ulchin, and Yeong-gwang are Korea’s four nuclear power plants.[/ref] that would house Korea’s 24 nuclear reactors were established by 1983.

Even after formal democracy was established with the first direct presidential elections in 1988, the government continued to build nuclear reactors. Yet, under democracy, the process was no longer as simple as choosing a site and building. “Countless attempts at building nuclear plants in new sites failed due to fierce opposition from residents,” explains Soo Hee Jeong, an Energy Justice Action activist. Koreans had been awakened to the dangers of radiation and nuclear accidents after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Out of that  consciousness, a denuclearization movement emerged into the political spaces opened up by democratization. The government’s solution was to minimize resistance by expanding nuclear power plants instead of building new ones and by softening up people with monetary compensation. As Chernobyl became a distant memory, and as public opinion was corralled by experts and PR campaigns to believe the safety of nuclear reactors, the public reluctantly accepted nuclear energy. Some in the environmental movement even considered nuclear energy as a possible solution to climate change.

Fukushima changed everything. It destroyed the myth of the infallible nuclear reactor and it re-awakened the denuclearization movement into soul-searching. Later that year, the public company that made and operated the nuclear plants - Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company (KHNP) - was rocked by a series of corruption and bribery scandals that questioned its ability to safely and effectively run Korea’s nuclear power plants. It was amidst a re-energized denuclearization movement, the Fukushima meltdown, and a disgraced KHNP that a movement formed against the second extension for the service life of Gori Nuclear Reactor 1.

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The impact of people’s mobilizations was felt. In 2014, a conservative candidate for Mayor of Busan won under a pledge to shut down Gori Nuclear Reactor 1. Working with the area’s National Assembly members, the new mayor successfully pressured the government to shut it down. Pressure from the bottom had been great enough to reach the highest levels of government: In June 2015 the KHNP announced it would decommission Gori Nuclear Reactor 1 by 2017. Korea’s first nuclear reactor had been shut down. In the next 15 years, 12 nuclear reactors are scheduled to finish their service lives. Furthermore, with half the current sites designated to house 8 nuclear[ref]Two of the sites are each operating 6 nuclear reactors, with two additional ones planned for operation by 2017.[/ref] reactors, residents’ tolerance for one more reactor reached its limits making expansion of current nuclear plants extremely difficult. With extension and expansion ruled out, the government has no choice but to build on a new site: Yeong-deok.

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“If we can block the creation of nuclear power plants in new sites, then we can stop nuclear power in Korea. That’s why the Yeong Deok struggle is so important. If they can’t build it here. They can’t build it anywhere,” explains Jeong. One of the tools in the denuclearization arsenal is the referendum. That’s because democracy remains antinuclear: Despite the fact that KHNP spent 1 billion won (~1 million dollars) in public relations, and the denuclearization groups spent 5 million won (~5 thousand dollars), public opinion polls showed 58.8% of residents opposed construction of the nuclear power plant.

If building a new nuclear power plant is not possible in a democracy, then the Park government will do so, outside it.The government held no public hearings or consultations with the public regarding construction of the nuclear plant. Furthermore, despite the fact that polls indicate 65.7% of residents want a referendum to decide on the nuclear plant, the government has denied them the right to decide by referendum.

Nonetheless, even an unofficial referendum can be a powerful organizing tool. In Samcheok, another site considered for a nuclear plant, the people were denied recourse to a referendum. Nonetheless, an unofficial referendum was carried out by volunteers. They registered 42,488 people (69% of officially registered voters). Of these, 68% voted; and 85% voted against the nuclear reactor. “When the people express such clear stance, it is hard for politicians to ignore it,” concludes Jeong. Jeong organized in Busan, but after the decommissioning of Gori Nuclear Reactor 1, she’s come to Yeongdeok to help mobilize an unofficial referendum to be held at the end of September before Kora’s big harvest holiday. “If the referendum goes well, it may be possible to include a bill where referendums are carried out to decide whether or not to have a nuclear plant,” speculates Jeong.

Blocking nuclear plant construction at the local level is only one side of the denuclearization equation. The other side is changing the government’s energy policy. The Park government’s plan to build 13 additional reactors by 2029 is based on its 7th Energy Supply Demand Basic Plan (7th Energy Plan) that forecasts an average annual 2.2% increase in energy consumption until 2029. Heon Seok Lee, Senior Activist of Energy Justice Action, disagrees with the government’s forecast and approach. He explains how the government’s forecast for the annual energy increase rate is excessive given Korea’s increasing energy efficiency, future shift from energy-intensive production, and its economic forecast. In response to the 7th Energy Plan, he supports an energy plan with an average annual 0.09% increase in energy consumption by 2029. Unlike the government’s plan which forecasts energy consumption then creates a plan on how to meet such demand, Lee’s plan sets an energy consumption increase target rate then plans how to achieve such target. Rather than increasing nuclear reactors, his plan wouldn’t build any; instead, it would shut down 12 reactos by 2029 as they reach the end of their service lives.

Lee sees renewable energy eventually replacing Korea’s nuclear energy. He points out Germany’s goal of meeting 100% of its energy needs with renewables by 2050. However, with renewables only making up 1-2% of total energy consumption, Korea is not at that stage yet. Until then, Korea can contribute to the fight against global warming by replacing nuclear energy and coal with liquid natural gas, the natural gas of choice for island nations[ref]Russia has offered cheaper piped natural gas (PNG) to South Korea since the 1990s, but the lack of a peace treaty make such pipeline across North and into South Korea impossible.[/ref], which produces far less greenhouse gases than coal.

To achieve a nuclear free Korea will mean balancing both ends of the equation, shutting down nuclear reactors, while decreasing energy consumption and transitioning to renewable energy.

Special thank you to Heon Seok Lee and Soo Hee Jeong of Energy Justice Action and Han Ja Won of Korean Federation for Environmental Movements for sharing their insights, knowledge, and time. 

written by Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)