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[Editorial] Change of tack

Fine dust heightens calls for reconsidering Moon government’s nuclear phaseout plan

Once again, President Moon Jae-in’s administration is facing louder calls to reconsider its plan to phase out nuclear power in the country.

The impetus is the choking fine dust that blanketed most parts of the country for three consecutive days over the weekend.

The Moon government adamantly adheres to its anti-nuclear stance, turning a deaf ear to a long list of costs critics say its misguided energy policy will incur. In a meeting with a group of corporate leaders Tuesday, Moon reiterated that nothing would stop this energy policy from moving forward.

But he may find it hard to remain insensitive to growing public concern that increased coal-fired power generation -- undertaken to make up for a decrease in nuclear electricity generation -- has aggravated the fine dust problem.

Earlier this week, most parts of the country suffered from high levels of ultrafine dust, a class 1 carcinogen, with the daily average level for Seoul surging to the highest figure on record. The sky began to clear Tuesday evening, but the nation’s weather agency predicts that it will once again be shrouded in fine dust as early as Thursday.

A senior ruling party member mentioned the fine dust issue, together with other reasons, last week when he called on the government to reconsider its decision not to build any more nuclear plants. In a meeting with representatives of the nuclear energy sector, Rep. Song Young-gil from the Democratic Party of Korea raised the need to build at least two new reactors to replace aged ones and thermal power plants.

It marked the first time that a ruling party legislator had spoken out against the Moon administration’s nuclear phaseout plan, suggesting skepticism might be spreading even among Moon’s political supporters about the relevance of his energy policy.

Soon after taking office in May 2017, Moon announced his intention to quadruple the proportion of renewables in the energy mix to 20 percent by 2030 and make the country nuclear-free over the coming six decades. The country’s 23 nuclear reactors now generate about one-third of its energy needs.

Not surprisingly, Song’s proposal was dismissed by the presidential office. A presidential spokesman said the issue of building new nuclear plants had been settled through public discussions. He was apparently referring to the public debate launched in July 2017, which ended with a recommendation that the country not build any more nuclear plants except for the two reactors that were already under construction at the time.

The Moon administration cited the recommendation in deciding to scrap plans for several reactors, including the Shin Hanwool 3 and 4, a decision that Song proposed reconsidering.

Despite the negative response from the presidential office, the four-term lawmaker came forward again Tuesday to reiterate his proposal.

Song was right to suggest a separate public debate is necessary to decide whether to revive the Shin Hanwool project. The original purpose of the 2017 discussion, as he pointed out, was to decide the fate of a separate reactor construction project, which Moon suspended shortly after taking office.

Furthermore, it seems necessary to hold a public debate on a wider scale, if not a national referendum, on Moon’s controversial nuclear phaseout policy.

According to a survey conducted by the Korea Nuclear Society last year, 71.6 percent of respondents supported nuclear power generation and only 26 percent opposed it.

The 2017 debate, attended by 500 ordinary citizens, cannot be the final say on the future of nuclear power generation in a country that has the highest per capita electricity demand in Asia and imports much of its fuel from abroad. The presidential office should not cling to it as an excuse to shut down further discussion on this crucial matter.

Belatedly but rightly, the ruling party lawmaker echoed concerns expressed by experts that an excessive shift away from nuclear to renewable energy could destabilize the energy supply and raise electricity costs.

The policy change would also undermine the country’s efforts to export its nuclear technology abroad and cause an exodus of talent from its nuclear industry.

In a press briefing Tuesday, a presidential spokesman avoided giving a direct answer to a question on the role of nuclear power generation in fighting fine dust, citing what he said was a media fact check showing that there was no correlation between the two issues. But an increasing number of suffocating days that heighten public anxiety might put greater pressure on the Moon government to reconsider its intransigent energy policy.