A government committee has been launched to plan and manage public debates which will decide the fate of two nuclear reactors: Shin Kori 5 and 6.
However, as President Moon Jae-in has proclaimed a policy to wean the nation from nuclear power generation, the concern is that the commission activity will be biased. The construction of the reactors has been suspended temporarily in line with the policy.
Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Paik Un-gyu said to reporters after his inauguration ceremony, “The government would have suspended their construction indefinitely if it wanted to do, as Moon pledged during his campaign, but it launched the panel to take democratic procedures for a national consensus.”
This is interpreted as meaning the government will suspend the construction permanently -- not unilaterally but with popular support.
The committee is to create a citizens’ jury and manage its debates for three months. The jurors are supposed to decide by Oct. 21 whether to suspend construction for good or resume it.
All nine members of the committee, including the chairman, have no experience related to nuclear power generation. It is expected to exclude figures with conflicts of interest and energy experts when it selects citizen jurors.
If the process of gathering public opinion through jury debates is embroiled in a controversy over fairness, it will be worse than not going through the process at all.
Opinions on the construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6 are sharply divided. If questions are raised about impartiality, either side is likely to boycott the debate. Concluding the debate in that way would inflame controversy and conflict.
Moon is intent on phasing out all nuclear power plants. Quite a few people are concerned the committee will come under government influence.
The government vowed to leave the committee untouched and to be fair and neutral. It also said it would accept the results of public debates as they were.
Some have also feared that citizen jurors, as non-experts, will be unfit to decide on the issue, which requires a high level of scientific knowledge and understanding of energy policy.
Energy policy is directly related to the growth of the national economy and the people’s well-being. Whether to construct reactors is a long-term, crucial part of energy policy. Nuclear electricity accounts for 32 percent of total electricity produced in Korea.
Letting laypersons decide on an important state policy within a three-month period comes off as irrational and risky.
When it comes to policies demanding expertise, debate among non-experts will go nowhere.
If a national consensus is desired, a referendum is an option to try.
The policy to close all nuclear plants is controversial in itself, but the method of pursuing the goal is debatable as well. Deciding by the name of citizens smacks of populism.
It is questionable, too, whether the jury can reach a conclusion in time. The schedule looks too tight to weigh the critical issue properly.
If the committee misses its deadline, the temporary suspension of construction will become null and void.
The construction of Shin Kori 5 and 6 was halted on July 14. They were 28.8 percent built as of late May, running up 1.6 trillion won in construction costs. If it is suspended permanently, about 2.6 trillion won, including an estimated 1 trillion won in breach-of-contract compensation to builders, will disappear in sunk costs.
Who should be accountable for this tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money?
Words like “we just followed the citizen jury’s decision” will come across as an irresponsible excuse.
The top priority for the committee is to ensure the fairness of public debates and the decision. Meticulous preparation and great caution are required.
The government must keep in mind that a striking damage to fairness may run the committee aground. Implicit influences, such as Moon’s remark that the Wolsong 1 reactor may be suspended, too, should have no place in the public debates on Shin Kori 5 and 6.