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[Editorial] Precious lessons

Fuss about nuclear reactors should educate government, people

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 22, 2017 - 17:31

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The public deliberation commission’s decision to recommend the resumption of the construction of two nuclear reactors should offer precious lessons to the government of President Moon Jae-in and the nation as a whole.

Most of all, the panel’s decision -- by the larger-than-expected margin of 19 percentage points -- shows that common sense prevails in the long run.

The 59.5 percent of the 471 jurors in the panel who supported resumption of the construction work for the Shin Kori No. 5 and No. 6 reactors must have been convinced that it was silly to abandon a project which was nearly 30 percent complete and which had already drawn 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion) in taxpayers’ money.

The verdict in the vote of the citizen jury is also a clear message that it is too early for the nation to free itself from nuclear power.

Indeed, it is ironic that President Moon’s unilateral push to close nuclear power plants only worked to increase public awareness that Korea still cannot afford to do without nuclear power, which now accounts for one-third of the electricity supply.

You don’t have to be an expert to know that Korea has relatively unfavorable conditions to replace nuclear power with renewable energy and other sources. Korea’s natural environment is not able to adequately generate plenty of power from solar and wind energy. Expansion of power plants using liquefied natural gas raises questions about cost and supply.

This is why the nation -- while trying to increase a portion of renewable energy -- needs to maintain a certain level of power generation from nuclear plants.

Another lesson from the fuss about the nuclear reactors is that the nation is mature enough to not easily accept any radical, unilateral policy shift pushed by a president.

Shutting down the two Shin Kori reactors was a key election pledge of Moon, who promised to eventually make Korea a nuclear-zero country.

To attain this goal, Moon insisted that Korea should not build any more plants, cease operation of working plants at the end of their lifespans -- which is usually 40 years -- and halt construction of reactors like the Shin Kori No. 5 and No. 6.

Believing that public opinion would be on his side, Moon tried to give legitimacy to his push by leaving the fate of the Shin Kori reactors to public deliberation and a vote by a citizen jury. But the government was not fair from the start.

The government halted the construction work for the two reactors even before it named the public deliberation panel. That was not much different from saying that “this is what the government wants you to do.”

During the three months the panel was engaged in deliberation, government officials and offices made all-out efforts to form an atmosphere conducive to the reactors’ shutdown. For instance, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy lowered the estimate for future power demand, as it would strengthen the position of those who call for reducing reliance on nuclear power.

Again, it was fortunate that the public panel in which the citizen jury played the decisive role blocked the government from its ill-advised radical shift away from nuclear power.

But the fact that the deliberation panel made the rightful decision this time should not free one from concerns that the government may use such a populist scheme on more sensitive and divisive issues in the future.

It certainly was risky to leave an issue as important as the fate of such a massive project as the Shin Kori reactors to the decision of a panel of no more than 500 people who were given only three months to think about it.

In a democracy, public opinion matters much, but it is not always right to leave an important decision only to public opinion. Public deliberation could be abused as a means for politicians and government decision-makers to avoid their responsibility or earn superficial legitimacy. It should be employed very selectively.