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[Editorial] ‘Green’ nuclear energy

S. Korea should include nuclear energy in its taxonomy, taking cue from EU’s decision

The European Commission has decided to include certain gas and nuclear activities in its taxonomy -- a classification system that offers guidelines on private investment promoting climate neutrality.

The latest move made on Wednesday by the European Commission suggests that South Korea is increasingly seen as a country going against the global trend of utilizing nuclear power plants as a source of green energy.

Late last year, the Moon Jae-in administration made a hasty and controversial decision to exclude nuclear power generation from its taxonomy, sending a message to Korean businesses that nuclear power plants are sources of energy harmful to the environment. This makes it hard to invest in nuclear energy activities, especially at a time when the country does not have enough viable green energy sources.

There was some opposition from several European Commission member nations, but the body eventually agreed that nuclear energy is inevitable to achieve carbon neutrality and presented a Taxonomy Complementary Climate Delegated Act on climate change mitigation including nuclear activities. The act will enter into force in January 2023, once the scrutiny period is over.

“Taking account of scientific advice and current technological progress, the Commission considers that there is a role for private investment in gas and nuclear activities in the transition,” the European Commission said in an official statement.

The transition refers to the period before the EU becomes climate neutral by 2050 under the European Green Deal, a growth strategy that is also aimed at protecting and conserving the EU’s natural capital and biodiversity.

The European Commission’s decision is based on scientific research. According to the Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance advising the commission on taxonomy, “nuclear represents a low-carbon energy source.”

Other international bodies including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Economic Commission for Europe also share the view that carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants is comparable to those from renewable energy sources.

Over the full lifetime of a nuclear power plant, greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 12 grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, which is the same as wind turbines and less than photovoltaic panels, according to the US Department of Energy.

The EU is not alone in rediscovering the value of nuclear energy. In December, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order committing to procure carbon-free electricity in a way that includes critical clean energy technologies such as nuclear -- going beyond wind and solar.

China, a country late to the nuclear power push, built 20 new nuclear plants from 2016 to 2020, and plans to construct a massive 150 new reactors at a cost of $440 billion to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

With countries fiercely competing to secure energy sources, Korea is distancing itself from nuclear energy, a dispute-laden stance that will make it harder to achieve carbon neutrality and cope with turbulences from climate change.

Critics say that Korean developers could miss out on big business opportunities, given that over 400 nuclear power plants are being planned around the world.

Experts also estimate that many countries are expanding portfolios of next-generation small modular reactors, or SMR, to secure energy supply and meet decarbonization goals. This outlook means a fresh opportunity for Korea, which already has the related SMR technology.

Against this backdrop, the government’s policy should reverse its policy in favor of nuclear energy and promptly revise its taxonomy. If not, the domestic nuclear industry would collapse and the government’s overseas sales pitch of nuclear power plants would be meaningless.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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