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[Kim Myong-sik] 2022 election to right wrong direction of energy plan

The past 4 1/2 years of the Moon Jae-in administration has given South Koreans the unwanted experience of witnessing amateurs in high posts distort major state policies, even in the crucial area of energy, dragging the nation back in the global industrial race.

The most painful example is the nuclear phaseout under President Moon’s great vision of a country free from nuclear power in its peaceful use. Moon’s signature policy, called “Talwonjeon” in Korean, has already pushed the nation’s nuclear power industry to the brink of bankruptcy and caused a sharp decline of academic disciplines related to nuclear energy and the near extinction of its students.

The current scarcity of urea solution, which threatens the stoppage of diesel-fueled heavy transportation and construction equipment that need the material for carbon dioxide reduction, may be another case of serious official negligence. South Korea discontinued urea production about a decade ago to depend almost entirely on cheap imports from China. China stopped urea exports last month to meet domestic demand, but officials here failed to perceive its impact, leaving Korea in its current predicament.

Instead of hoping that the urea solution shortage will be resolved in the near future through joint government and private efforts in search of extra supplies outside China, I would rather delve into how our energy policy was led astray by foolhardy politics. In his first major policy manifesto shortly after his May 2017 inauguration, Moon declared a departure from nuclear power to shift to the safe renewable energy, namely wind and solar.

I don’t buy the speculation that Moon was duped into Talwonjeon by local disaster film “Pandora,” which depicted the destruction of a nuclear power plant in an earthquake. He saw the movie in December 2016, reportedly having shed tears over the tragic loss of life depicted in it. But he had already pursued a nuclear-free energy policy, including it in his campaign pledges as early as 2012, when he unsuccessfully ran for president.

In any case, it is certain that the Fukushima quake and tsunami in 2011 and a 2016 major earthquake near Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, where some nuclear power plants are located, had influenced Moon’s ideas on energy issues. In the 2017 election campaign, he pledged to halt construction of new nuclear power plants and scrap the program.

The first Talwonjeon actions Moon took from Cheong Wa Dae were the suspension of the construction of Shin-Kori Nos. 5 and 6 power plants which were about 30 percent complete and an immediate shutdown of Wolseong No. 1 plant which had entered a 10-year extended operation after 30 years of service. There was strong pushback from nearby residents, labor unions and academics.

As for the Wolseong plant, there was little justification to close the facility after pouring 560 billion won ($470 million) to replace old parts. However, upon requests from somewhere, the relevant office of the Ministry of Industry and Resources and the board of the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. released reports on why continued operation of the Wolseong No. 1 located near Gyeongju was economically undesirable.

The 670,000-kilowatt CANDU-type power plant was powered down as a result. Later, the Board of Audit and Inspection uncovered officials’ manipulation of relevant data on Wolseong No. 1 operations at the instance of higher-ups. Several officials, including then-Minister Paik Un-gyu, were indicted for gross negligence and other charges.

Pulling the plug on Shin-Kori Nos. 5 and 6 was a little more complicated. To create the facade of a democratic process, Moon formed a panel of 10 people of social prominence to give them the mission of consulting the public on the issue. The “Public Consensus Committee” then selected a “citizens’ jury” of 500 people of supposedly neutral backgrounds to decide whether to continue the projects or not.

The “jurors” studied competing arguments put forward by nuclear energy and environmental experts for about a month before voting. The final result was 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent against the scrapping of the two power plant projects, and work resumed with a schedule to finish the light-water reactors in 2023 and 2024. Despite his Talwonjeon efforts, Moon will have five new nuclear power plants going into operation during his five-year tenure. These 24 reactors will supply about 29 percent of the nation’s energy needs.

In recent years, South Koreans have heard embarrassing news of their president on overseas tours asking foreign leaders to award their nuclear plant projects to Korean firms, which he pitched as the producers of the most economic and safest nuclear energy facilities. Moon was following the footsteps of former President Lee Myung-bak who successfully lobbied at the summit level for Korean firms to win a project in the United Arab Emirates. The outcome of Moon’s lobbying in the Czech Republic and Hungary has not been known yet.

Moon’s anti-nuclear campaign halted two nascent projects, Shin Hanul reactors 3 and 4, resulting in the waste of some 340 billion won already spent on the purchase of land and surveys, while reactors 1 and 2 were saved. On the occasion of closing the oldest Kori No. 1 plant, President Moon graciously suggested that South Korea could become a global leader in the business of dismantling nuclear plants.

In his final year in office, Moon has faced the dilemma of having to recognize the usefulness of nuclear energy to reduce carbon production on the global stage while refusing to compromise his anti-nuclear energy stance. In his recent address to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, President Moon assured that South Korea would cut greenhouse gases by 40 percent as early as 2030 to help attain carbon neutrality by 2050.

The outgoing president’s promise to the global audience has fallen on the shoulders of his successor(s). One thing the present candidates from different parties may agree on must be that the only way for Korea to reach the international objective is to put Moon’s basic energy plan to a review to reintroduce nuclear power as a vital resource for industries and human lives.

Before he leaves Cheong Wa Dae, somebody should correct Moon that the 1,368 deaths in Fukushima he mentioned in his Talwonjeon address had nothing to do with radioactivity but were the sick and aged who died in the adversity of evacuation.

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

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