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[Kim Myong-sik] Suggesting plebiscite on energy denuclearization

Passing the halfway point in his five-year tenure, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rate hovers just above the 40 percent mark, half the level immediately after his election in May 2017. Woes grow among manufacturers, traders and consumers, security threats loom large and political groups are sharpening hostility. Amid rising discontent, the energy denuclearization policy has emerged as a top destabilizing issue.

University students at nuclear science departments see no future in their chosen careers, as the nation’s nuclear power plants, operating 25 reactors, are all to be shut down by the target year of 2060. No new nuclear plants will be built except for the three already under construction. There will be no service extension, although renewal is easy and common, should leftist rule continue.

Local builders and parts suppliers are making layoffs while desperately seeking overseas contracts, yet few potential clients see strong reliability in firms that have all but lost local demand. The media incessantly reports scandals involving renewable energy businesses and people around power.

The days of cheap energy will be over for Korean homes, factories and public facilities. The environmental impact of the quick conversion is felt around the country, as forestland is being denuded to make room for solar panels in unlikely locations. More fossil fuels are used, contributing to air pollution at a time when the nation is braced for waves of fine dust from China.

Whatever the negative outcomes, there is little likelihood that Moon is to change his energy policy, which was one of his major election pledges in 2017. Nature activists are the vanguards for the president along with unionists, younger schoolteachers and North Korea sympathizers. The apocalyptic scenes of the Dai-ichi Power Plant explosion in the 2011 tsunami in northeast Japan still haunt Moon, who is rumored to have also been deeply shocked by a Korean-made nuclear disaster film.

Germany’s and Switzerland’s choice should be ours too, Moon believes, ignoring the flexible international energy sharing system in western Europe. Publicists of Fukushima are inviting foreign media representatives to show them the minimum environmental harm from the meltdown site ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, such as the reduction of radioactive water from over 400 tons a day to 180 tons now.

Trouble in the neighboring country over the Fukushima disaster offers grounds for the Moon administration to justify its energy denuclearization plan. Authorities here reacted seriously when Tokyo’s environment minister indicated the inevitable dumping of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. An embassy official was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be warned of an embargo against Japanese marine products.

People are alarmed by the huge losses recorded by the Korea Electric Power Company for the first time in many years, and foresee doubled and tripled utility bills. Parties have grabbed onto the nuclear energy problem as a major campaign issue for the National Assembly elections next year and the presidential poll in 2022. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party recruited an energy expert to its policies staff to work out an offensive strategy.

When we look back, Moon Jae-in’s energy program to replace nuclear power with renewable energy entered the 2017 campaign in a wholesale manner in repetition from the 2012 campaign while voters were swept up in the vortex of Park Geun-hye’s ouster. Moon’s victory in the three-way contest with 41.1 percent support snatched the nuclear power termination as a spectacular trophy for leftists. Yet there is no proof that it represented the majority will of the people.

Nuclear energy scientists and engineers, who are now about to lose their once promising jobs, should come out of laboratories and engage actively in public education. People need to know not only about the scale of disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, but also how fewer people have died and suffered illness from nuclear energy disasters than in mishaps related to conventional power generation for more than a half century.

Parties, be they conservative or not, are sure to glean decisive votes if they raise the anti-denuclearization flag in energy debates in collaboration with academics and engineers, who never would give up scientific conscience and are ready to produce alternative policies. The ruling force must by now be aware of how unpopular their energy programs are and some leaders must be seeking exit strategies for this and other key policies.

Shortly after the inauguration of the Moon administration, it withdrew the decision to discontinue the construction of the Shin Kori reactor Nos. 5 and 6 – which were already 30 percent complete – in the face of strong public objection. Now, government authorities are advised to attach a questionnaire to parliamentary election ballots next April, asking voters to make a choice on the future of the nation’s energy industry.

If accepted by the administration, the plebiscite will be the first on state policy in the history of the Republic of Korea other than constitutional amendment votes. Multiple polltakers could do the job, but through their routine opinion surveys with samples of less than 10,000, they have won only flimsy reliability, especially because of their suspected manipulation.

Of course, nuclear power plants still have many years of life before full decommissioning. Three more reactors will go into operation – Shin Hanul No. 2 and Shin Kori Nos. 5 and 6 – during Moon Jae-in’s tenure. It will be some four decades later when these newest power plants will finally be shut down. The existing plan is to make renewable energy account for 20 percent of the nation’s total energy supply by 2030, gradually replacing the portion produced by nuclear plants.

The suggested poll may give the electorate two choices -- one supporting the present government plan for energy denuclearization and the other demanding that the existing plan be put on hold and reviewed wholly. If and when the latter wins, the same process which had been applied to the review of the Shin Kori Nos. 5 and 6 decisions should be taken following the vote.

The German government started asking people about the desirability of operating nuclear power plants right after reunification in 1989 and decided in 2011 to close all its nuclear power plants by 2022. The shortfall will be filled with renewable energy and imported chiefly from nuclear plants in France. In Taiwan, a plebiscite at the time of local elections last year scrapped the energy denuclearization program with 54.4 percent support.

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. His email address is -- Ed.
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