South Korea chose to complete the construction of two nuclear reactors on Friday in a symbolic decision between stability and a drastic change in economy and environment.
Construction of Shin Kori nuclear reactors No. 5 and 6 have been suspended since June 27 at 29.5 percent completion under the new Moon Jae-in administration’s nuclear phase-out drive. About 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion) had already been spent on the project.
“We hereby announce our decision to recommend to the government the resumption of the stalled construction of Shin Kori No. 5 and 6,” a state commission tasked with gauging public opinions on the matter said in a press briefing which was broadcast live on TV.
The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said it respects the committee’s conclusion and will make necessary preparations. Resumption will be endorsed at the next Cabinet meeting slated for Tuesday, it added.
The Shin Kori reactors project has been one of the most divisive issues in South Korea recently, pitting advocates of President Moon’s nuclear-free Korea vision against its vocal critics in almost every sphere of society from politics and academia to industrial sectors. Nuclear power plants generate one third of electricity here.
Friday’s outcome casts dark clouds over Moon’s campaign for an energy policy U-turn away from nuclear toward renewables. Pace adjustments look inevitable.
59.5 percent vs 40.5 percent
The commission that decided on the fate of the Shin Kori reactors reached the outcome based on four rounds of surveys on the “citizen jury,” a group of 471 ordinary South Koreans.
After monthslong discussions and presentations from experts and different interest groups, the jury was 59.5 percent in favor of the resumption, while 40.5 percent wanted to see the project aborted altogether.
“As the deliberation process proceeded, surveys showed a gradual increase in the number of those who support the project’s completion,” Kim Ji-hyoung, the head of the nine-member committee explained.
“In the end, there was a quite significant difference between the two.” The result has a 95 percent confidence level with a margin of error of plus and minus 3.6 percentage points, he said.
Regardless of the Shin Kori reactors, the jury supported a reduction in nuclear energy overall, Kim said.
“We also recommend that the government should forge polices toward reducing the proportion of nuclear power generation,” he said.
In the fourth survey, 53.2 percent of the jurors supported a scale-down of nuclear reactors, while 35.5 percent chose a status quo and 9.7 percent an increase, the commission revealed.
South Korea currently has 24 reactors and 9 are under construction or being planned.
Moon in June unveiled a green energy roadmap which includes shutting down aged reactors and closing all other facilities over the next four decades. Shortly after the announcement, the country’s oldest reactor -- Kori No. 1 -- closed operation.
The construction site of Shin Kori. (Yonhap)
Reflecting a divided society on the issue, reactions were also mixed.
The Korea Federation for Environmental Movements said they “accept the final survey result with a heavy heart,” but will continue to campaign for a nuclear-free South Korea.
Greenpeace Korea said in a statement that the government should not allow Friday’s outcome to affect its push for a green energy transition.
Some environmental activists urged the president to make good on his election promise to do away with nuclear reactors.
Opposition politicians did not miss the opportunity to attack President Moon and the ruling camp, demanding Moon’s apology for causing social confusion and economic losses.
“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 said.
“The government has made a nuclear power phase-out a fait accompli and has used all ways and methods to promote its policy. ... (Now), it has submitted to citizens‘ right voices regarding its wrong policy,” he added.
The ruling Democratic Party said it would “respect” the outcome, stressing that the government carried out a democratic deliberation process to reach social consensus over the highly polarizing issue.
The nuclear industry hailed the decision.
“Once we receive the official document from the government, we will notify contractors and work for the resumption of the construction,” the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., which is leading a consortium of companies building the two reactors.
It also said it plans to compensate local contractors on about 100 billion won in financial damage caused by the construction’s suspension.
The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission said once the government finalizes the resumption, the commission’s task force will thoroughly check on the safety conditions since work is to resume after a three month hiatus. It could take about one month, it said.
By Kim Da-sol (firstname.lastname@example.org)