South Korea decided Friday to restart the construction of two nuclear power reactors, as an official survey showed a larger than expected number of people are supportive of resumption despite President Moon Jae-in's pledge to phase out nuclear energy.
A state commission charged with gauging public opinion on the Shin Kori-5 and Shin Kori-6 reactors under construction in the southeastern city of Ulsan announced that 59.5 percent of a 471-member jury supported the resumption of the project while 40.5 percent backed its abandonment.
The gap was larger than expected, well exceeding the survey's margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
"In all age brackets, the proportion of those on the resumption side grew as more surveys were conducted," Kim Ji-hyung, head of the commission, said in a televised announcement. "The commission recommends to the government the policy of resuming the construction of Shin Kori No. 5 and No. 6."
The survey also found that 53.2 percent support scaling back nuclear power generation while 35.5 percent supported maintaining the current situation. Only 9.7 percent called for expansion of nuclear power generation, Kim said.
"Therefore, the commission recommends that the government make energy policy decisions in the direction of scaling down nuclear power generation," Kim said.
Scrapping the project was one of President Moon Jae-in's campaign promises. After taking office, however, he decided to determine the reactors' fate according to public opinion and ordered the establishment of the independent commission charged with collecting public views and making a recommendation.
Moon's office Cheong Wa Dae said the government will respect the survey's outcome.
"(Cheong Wa Dae) respects the will of the public debate commission that made its recommendation after three months of deliberation," Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Park Soo-hyun told a press briefing. "The government will do its utmost to implement follow-up measures without any disruption, based on the recommendation."
The government is expected to formally endorse the recommendation in a Cabinet meeting set for Tuesday.
The reactors were about 30 percent complete before their construction was suspended in July. About 1.6 trillion won (US$1.4
billion) had already been spent on the project.
The proposal to abandon the reactors sparked heated debate in a country that relies on nuclear power plants for about a third of its electricity. Proponents say the country should phase out nuclear power for safety and environmental reasons, but opponents say it will lead to a shortage in the power supply and a spike in electricity bills.
Moon believes South Korea should lessen its dependence on nuclear power and increase the use of renewable energy. But he has stressed that the government will gradually close reactors one by one when their lifespan is up, rather than rushing to shut them down early.
He said it could take up to 60 years for South Korea to completely phase out nuclear power.
The public appears to have been evenly divided.
Four Gallup surveys have shown that the proportions of those supporting and opposing the reactor project are only a few percentage points apart or even within the margins of error. This week's survey by Realmeter also showed only a 0.6 percentage point difference, with 43.8 percent in favor of halting the project while
43.2 percent support resuming the construction.
Calls for scrapping the reactor project gained traction after a powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit the country's southeastern city of Gyeongju in September last year. It was the most powerful quake ever recorded in South Korea.
The quake sparked safety concerns about the reactors being built just dozens of miles away in light of a discovery that the region lies on an active fault prone to quakes. Anti-nuclear activists have called for scrapping the project, arguing that the country could face a disaster similar to that of Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident caused by a powerful earthquake.
The region is already home to six nuclear reactors, with two more set to go into operation starting next year. The Shin Kori-5 and Shin Kori-6 reactors would bring the total number in the region to 10.
The ruling Democratic Party said it would respect the state panel's recommendation and called for opposing sides on the project to accept the outcome, stressing that the government took a democratic deliberation process to reach social consensus over the highly polarizing issue.
Opposition parties demanded Moon apologize for confusion caused by his proposal to scrap the project.
"The government has to apologize for the commotion that it has triggered and take time for self-reflection," Choung Tae-ok, the spokesman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told reporters.
He also called for the government to withdraw its nuclear power phase-out policy. (Yonhap)