President Moon gives up on nuclear phase-out and a renewal of the nuclear free movement


by Lee Heon-seok (ISC Adviser, Energy Justice Action Representative)translated by Shim Tae-eun (Chief Korean Editor, The [su:p])

Phasing out nuclear power Since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan, terms like “nuclear phase-out” and “nuclear-free” have been widely used in Korea. Before Fukushima, the social movement against nuclear power was called the “anti-nuclear” movement, a term used globally to refer to activities against nuclear power plants, weapons, waste facilities and reprocessing.

However, since Fukushima, “anti-nuclear” has rapidly changed to “nuclear phase-out” in Korea. Nuclear phase-out literally means getting rid of nuclear power generation. It is about efforts to break away from the existing electricity policy centered on nuclear energy and shift to sustainable energy sources like renewables. This is possible only when a comprehensive energy transition policy, including energy demand management, is established.

Thus, the change in terminology is not just a political statement of anti-nuclear, but implies that activities to change energy policies need to be more aggressive. Indeed, since Fukushima, there have been lots of movements to change Korea’s energy policy — energy independent (carbon-free) village projects, installation of small residential solar panels, projects to save energy and increase its efficiency — signifying that a movement broader than the previous anti-nuclear movement is in motion. Opposition to nuclear power itself has not changed, but based on that, changing the energy supply system and “reducing the number of nuclear power plants” would be a genuine nuclear phase-out.

Public discussion on the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear reactors and civil society’s response Compared to the anti-nuclear movement, which has been led mainly by residents living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants and environmental groups, the nuclear-free movement has expanded to wider circles since Fukushima — religious, cooperative, feminist, labor and so on. Even doctors, lawyers and university professors have created their own nuclear-free movement groups. Thanks to the movement’s expansion, presidential candidates during the election earlier this year announced promises of a nuclear phase-out and opposition to the construction of two nuclear reactors known as Shin Kori 5 and 6.

But after the election,  the political winds changed on the  Shin Kori 5 and 6 issue. President Moon shifted his rhetoric from “abandon the project” to “let’s have a public discussion on Shin Kori 5 and 6”. Opposition parties called for resumption of the construction, ignoring what they previously pledged.

Under this circumstance, Korean civil society decided to actively respond to the public discussion and aggressively publicized problems with nuclear power and why construction must be stopped. With the setback of President Moon’s campaign promise, some argued that civil society should not participate in the process. Nonetheless, we took part in the discussion because it held significance as the first energy policy decided by the people. Furthermore, persuading fellow citizens could have been the shortcut to a nuclear-free Korea.

However, the reality was quite harsh. Every day, conservative media churned out malicious articles about nuclear-free policies and renewable energy. The conservative opposition parties chastised the government for its nuclear-free efforts and for interrupting construction of the reactors.

On the other hand, the ruling party kept silent under the name of “neutrality,” which resulted in the opposition taking the initiative in public discussion. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP), the state-run nuclear power plant operator, used its huge financial and human capital to push its cause and distribute promotional materials. It also launched an intense offensive on the discussion committee and diverse panel discussions with its accumulated information.

KHNP had exclusive rights to all information regarding the reactors, so no one could know the details without going through KHNP. The company’s neutrality was highly suspect from the beginning of public discussion because of its status as a public company. It systematically carried out activities in favor of construction. In one instance, Lee Kwan-sup, CEO and president of KHNP, went as far as saying at a press conference that he would do everything in his power to resume construction.

Government-funded research institutes acted similarly. Researchers from the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, Korea Energy Economics Institute and others who have shaped national energy policy participated as presenters on the pro-construction side despite objections from the anti-construction side. While the government left open to people the question of what to do after suspending construction, government researchers claimed construction should continue. This went continued during the whole time. Civil society kept raising this issue, but the public discussion committee tolerated it, saying there was no legal basis for blocking it.

The capacity gap between civil society and a nuclear industry with over 40 years of experience was huge. As a result, 59.5% of public discussion committee voted in favor of resuming construction. The result is unfortunate given the fairness issue was not resolved during the discussion process.

President Moon’s announcement on giving up a nuclear phase-out and the future response On Oct. 22, President Moon in his briefing announced the resumption of Shin Kori’s construction. He also said that four nuclear power plants will begin operation during his term. Thus, the number of nuclear power plants will decrease starting with the next government. He added that the government would spur the expansion of natural gas and renewable energy so that the next government can keep the nuclear-free direction.

Given that nuclear-free means breaking away from nuclear power plants, his announcement can be understood as abandonment of his campaign promise to discard Shin Kori 5 and 6 and a nuclear-free policy. A nuclear phase-out in which nuclear power plants are built does not make any sense. This happened just five months after the Moon administration’s inauguration.

The discussion concluded with resuming construction, but it does not mean the end of the nuclear-free movement since ethical issues like the risk of nuclear power plants and the responsibility passed onto future generations still exist. Other issues constantly arising from nuclear power generation but dwarfed by the Shin Kori discussion, including the safety of the Hanbit 4 reactor, strengthening the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission and dealing with high-level radioactive waste, are urgent and pending issues that the nuclear-free movement is facing.

This public discussion process left a deep scar in the nuclear-free movement. Some raised the criticism that civil society accepted the construction by participating in the process. With all these limitations, the conclusion drawn by the committee that engaged in the process for a month should be respected.

However, that should not be interpreted as acceptance of the construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6. The huge gap between both sides came from a tilted playing field and civil society’s lack of capacity, which contributed to the result. In addition, the Moon administration’s broken campaign promise deserves criticism regardless of the public discussion process.

The nuclear-free movement shall go on even after the public discussion process on Shin Kori has concluded because the government’s nuclear power plant expansion project will entail other problems and conflicts. As long as problems caused by old nuclear power plants exist, there will always be residents scared of them. The nuclear-free movement shall reflect on its responses and do self-assessment to renew itself.