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Resistance grows to Moon’s nuclear phase-out

Concerns rise over South Korea’s weak renewable energy capacity

President Moon Jae-in’s nuclear phaseout policy has resurfaced as a bone of contention, triggered by ruling Democratic Party Rep. Song Young-gil’s remarks that the construction of Shin Hanwool 3 and 4 should be resumed.

As the first ruling party politician to raise a dissenting voice against the administration’s push for a nuclear phaseout, Song instantly drew criticism from a fellow party member. But two opposition parties praised Song’s remarks and called them “brave.”

Questions over whether South Korea is capable of producing sufficient renewable energy coupled with the fact that the likely candidates to head the state-run Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute favor the phaseout are widely expected to further exacerbate the political wrangling, with the main opposition parties stepping up pressure on the government to retain nuclear energy.

“The collapse of the supply chain for nuclear reactor equipment is becoming a reality due to the government’s decision to stop construction of new nuclear power plants. For the export and safe operations of nuclear reactors, equipment should be supplied consistently,” Song said last Friday at an event hosted by the country’s nuclear energy industry.

“Though old nuclear reactors and power generators should be suspended, the government needs to consider resuming the construction of Shin Hanwool 3 and 4,” he said, though he also expressed agreement with Moon’s general road map for phasing out nuclear power.

Song also emphasized the economic value of nuclear reactor exports. An export of a reactor is worth about $5 billion, equivalent to the export of 250,000 midsize cars or 5 million smartphones.

On the campaign trail, Moon vowed to bring up renewable energy to 20 percent of total energy sources by 2030 from the current 7 percent.


As part of the plan, the government in 2017 dropped plans to construct six nuclear reactors that the Trade Ministry had approved in February that year, including Shin Hanwool 3 and 4. The government also shut down Wolseong 1 last summer despite fierce opposition from opposition parties and industry players.

Resembling Taiwan’s phaseout road map, which that country abandoned in late 2017 due to a massive electricity shortage, the Moon government’s plan calls for 10 of the current 23 nuclear reactors to be idled by 2029.

Criticizing Song, Rep. Woo Won-sik of the Democratic Party, who also heads the party’s special committee on energy transition, said on social media, “It is a shame. The argument to return to nuclear reactors citing problematic old power plants is completely inconsiderate of the current trend.”

Woo defended the Moon administration’s nuclear phaseout as a 60-year plan that involves the shutdown of old reactors.

The main opposition Korea Liberty Party, which is collecting online signatures against Moon’s nuclear phaseout, lauded Song’s remarks, urging the government to immediately begin construction of Shin Hanwool 3 and 4 and to scrap policies to phase out nuclear power.

“The ruling party has finally begun to notice the problem with the nuclear phaseout. The policy destroys Korea’s power plant ecosystem and future profit generator,” said Na Kyung-won, the ruling party floor leader, during Monday’s emergency committee meeting.

Echoing Na, minor opposition Bareunmirae Party floor leader Kim Kwan-young said, “In the midst of Cheong Wa Dae’s unilateral push for a nuclear phaseout policy, it was a brave confession.”

“Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party must review overall energy policies and pay attention to Song’s confession ... going back on the construction of Shin Hanwool 3 and 4 is a move that will tarnish the credibility of government-led policies.”

Amid the deepening conflict, some industry experts are voicing the need for Korea to slow down the speed of the nuclear phaseout, citing the country’s lack of wind, hydro and solar power to meet the electricity demand.

“It is logical for (Korea) to cut its goal by more than half for 2040,” said Jeong Yong-hoon, a professor at KAIST’s Department of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering.

“The government argues that renewable energy should make up 40 percent of energy sources by 2040 in line with the global outlook. But as we are not expanding hydroelectric power, a 20 percent ratio would be plenty,” Jung added.

Evidence suggests that Korea’s two main target sources of renewable energy -- solar and wind power -- are incapable of producing sufficient energy to meet demand.

Last August, at the peak of summer, the operating ratio of wind power remained low at 13 percent because “there’s not a lot of wind in the summer,” said state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation’s central load dispatch center, adding that the usage rate of solar plants was 44 percent.

The appointment of the director of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute next month looks set to intensify the conflict, with industry insiders anticipating that out of the 16 candidates, one of the three pro-nuclear phaseout candidates is likely to take office.

Former head of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission Kang Jung-min and professor Park Jong-un of Dongguk University’s department of nuclear energy system engineering sought to stop the construction of the Shin Kori-5 and Shin Kori-6 reactors in 2017, while former Ministry of Education and Science Technology’s nuclear safety director Moon Byeong-ryong served as an adviser to Science and ICT First Vice Minister Mun Mi-ock, then Cheong Wa Dae’s science and technology aide, who participated in the drawing up of the administration’s nuclear phaseout policy.

By Kim Bo-gyung (