The Korea Herald


[Andrew Wolman] The environmental case for nuclear energy


Published : Sept. 26, 2011 - 18:49

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Six months after the Fukushima disaster, the repercussions of history’s second-largest nuclear meltdown are still being felt, not only in Japan but around the world. Predictably, people are rethinking the wisdom of relying on nuclear power. The German and Swiss governments have pledged to phase out the use of nuclear power, and Italy has shelved plans to build new reactors. Public debate on future nuclear energy use continues in the United Kingdom, Japan, Finland, and other countries.

So far, it is unclear what the reaction of the Korean government will be. Certainly, the public backlash to nuclear energy that has occurred elsewhere in the world is also evident in Korea; according to one study, opposition to nuclear energy in Korea has tripled since the Fukushima disaster. However, there are countervailing considerations here as well, which have caused policy-makers to move cautiously. Korea’s economy is often seen as particularly reliant on the use of nuclear power due to its lack of fossil fuel resources, while Korean companies are some of the world’s most important builders (and exporters) of nuclear power stations.

Truthfully, I am indifferent regarding the economic health of Korea’s builders and exporters of nuclear power plants. Nor does energy security strike me as an overly important issue; there will always be countries willing to sell fossil fuels to Korea. However, as someone who cares deeply about the environment, I nevertheless feel that there is really only one defensible position to take in the ongoing debate about the future of nuclear energy: that governments and operators should learn lessons from Fukushima, and should improve safety measures where possible, but at the end of the day nuclear power must continue to play a prominent role in supplying power to Korea and the world.

This might seem an odd position from an environmentalist perspective. It is not. There are three primary reasons why nuclear power is safer and greener than power generated using conventional fossil fuels. First ― and most importantly ― nuclear power does not directly result in the emission of greenhouse gases. Even when you take a life-cycle approach and factor in the greenhouse gas emissions from the construction of the plant, there is no contest. Fossil fuels ― whether coal, oil, or natural gas ― create far more global warming.

The negative effects of climate change will vastly outweigh the human and environmental consequences of even a thousand Fukushimas. This is not the place to survey all the dire warnings that have been coming out of the scientific community; suffice it to quote U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s concise statement that climate change is the world’s “only one truly existential threat … the great moral imperative of our era.” A warming earth will not only lead to death and displacement in far-off locales, either. Typhoons are already hitting the peninsula with greater intensity due to the warming air, and a recent study warns that global warming will cause Korea to see greatly increased rates of contagious diseases such as cholera and bacillary dysentery.

As the world’s ninth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it should be (and is) a major priority for Korea to reduce emissions, and realistically that can only be accomplished by increasing the use of nuclear power. As Barack Obama noted with regard to the United States’ energy consumption, “Nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions. It’s that simple. (One plant) will cut carbon pollution by 16 million tons each year when compared to a similar coal plant. That’s like taking 3.5 million cars off the road.” Environmentalists have traditionally disdained nuclear power, but even green activists cannot argue with that logic, and increasing numbers of them ― Patrick Moore, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand and the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore being prominent examples ― have become supporters of the smart use of nuclear power.

Second, the immediate dangers to human health of conventional air pollution outweigh the dangers of nuclear radiation. In 2009, the Seoul Metropolitan Government measured an average PM10 (particulate) concentration in the city of 53.8 g/m3, a figure that is roughly twice the level in other developed nations. According to the Gyeonggi Research Institute, PM10 pollution leads to 10,000 premature deaths per year in and around Seoul, while the Korea Economic Institute has estimated its social cost at 10 trillion won. While sulfur dioxide levels in the region have decreased significantly since the 1980s, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the air has not decreased, and ground-level ozone levels remain high. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power does not result in the release of any of these dangerous pollutants that fill the skies around Seoul, creating health hazards that are no less serious for often going unnoticed.

And third, the environmental and safety consequences of extracting and transporting fossil fuels are far greater than those involved with the production of nuclear power. Korea is one of the largest importers of Indonesian coal for use in power plants, for example. This coal is not always mined with a high level of environmental and safety protections, with a predictable result of air, water, and land pollution in one of Asia’s most biologically sensitive ecosystems. Coal mining is also one of the world’s more dangerous occupations, as evidenced by the many tragic disasters involving poorly managed Chinese mines. While natural gas is certainly a better option than coal, its distribution too can be problematic, whether by ship or through the recently proposed pipeline that would slice down through Siberia and North Korea to provide direct access to Russian gas.

This is not to say that nuclear power is a perfect option, or even a good option. The threat of accidents, while low, is real. There are also real concerns relating to the disposal of nuclear waste and the proliferation of technology that can be used for nuclear weapons. But at this point, nuclear is a better option than continued reliance on fossil fuels.

What about truly green renewable energy, some might ask ― solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tidal energy? Of course, Korea would be a safer and more sustainable place if these clean renewable resources were able to cover the country’s energy needs. However, the country is not particularly well suited for hydroelectric projects, while the other forms of renewable energy production are expensive, and are unfortunately likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The fact is that most Koreans will not want to pay the significantly higher energy prices that would result from the widespread use of clean renewables, and in a democratic society, the government is unlikely to force them to do so. Thus, we are left with two realistic options: fossil fuels or nuclear. From an environmental perspective, it would truly be a disaster to abandon the latter.

By Andrew Wolman

Andrew Wolman is an assistant professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Graduate School of International and Area Studies, where he teaches international law and human rights. ― Ed.