New thinking on nuclear power
Long-term sustainable energy plan needed
On May 5, Japan switched off its last operating nuclear reactor, leaving the island country without atomic-generated electricity in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
In acute contrast, Korea started construction on two nuclear reactors in Uljin, North Gyeongsang Province a day earlier. The new reactors will use locally made components for all their critical systems, marking a milestone in the country’s nuclear energy history.
Japan’s nuclear zero comes as a surprise to Koreans who are accustomed to wasting electricity and other energy sources. They often wonder how electricity could be supplied to homes and factories without atomic power generation in a country where nuclear power accounts for nearly 30 percent of total electricity generation.
As the summer draws nearer, fears of blackouts are already haunting Korea as they do in Japan. That’s because Korea is behind schedule in expanding its power capacity, especially electricity generated by nuclear power plants, due to opposition from residents and environmentalists.
While Korea and Japan are following different paths, there are growing voices for Korea to reconsider its expansion-oriented nuclear power policy. In particular, given hidden costs associated with nuclear power such as expenses needed to deal with nuclear waste, dismantle plants and compensate victims in the event of a disaster, nuclear energy doesn’t appear to be a cheap energy source any longer.
To produce 1 kilowatt of electricity per hour, nuclear power costs 39.1 won, compared with 67.1 won for coal and more than 200 won for oil. Costs for renewable energy such as solar and wind power are still too high, making it almost meaningless to compare them.
Nonetheless, the number of people against continuous nuclear power expansion is rising domestically. Since the tsunami-sparked disaster in Japan, negative opinions on nuclear power have been gaining momentum. A survey conducted in March showed that 53 percent of people supported keeping atomic power capacity at the current level; 30 percent were in favor of expansion while 17 percent preferred to reduce nuclear power generation. Korea has 21 reactors in operation and plans to build 12 more by 2022.
Industrialized countries have been leaning toward halting nuclear power. Germany has decided to terminate atomic power plants by 2022 and France, which relies on nuclear power for 75 percent of its electricity demand, is expected to slash its dependence on nuclear energy with a socialist government taking over.
Now it’s high time for Korea to look for a long-term sustainable energy policy, especially focusing on how it will deal with nuclear power plants in the long run.
We don’t support radical environmentalists who claim unrealistically that Korea must close all nuclear power plants immediately and seek alternative energy sources. Many of them show strong political inclinations and oppose nuclear power without much thought while not conserving energy and criticizing the rise of electricity rates.
This does not mean that we support the government’s current nuclear power expansion plan either that runs counter to the global trend since the Fukushima accident.
Our debate on nuclear power should begin by admitting that atomic power plants played a key role in Korea’s economic development ― while the inflation rate between 1982 and 2009 reached 230 percent, electricity rates rose a meager 14.5 percent during the same period.
There are two key questions with regard to our energy policy. One is to cut electricity consumption dramatically and the other is to chart a realistic energy blueprint.
To reduce power consumption, we have to accept a continuous rise in electricity rates. The government, for its part, should review its current energy plan in such a direction as not to build more atomic power plants and develop various renewable energy sources through intensive research and development.