For Seoul residents, South Korea’s decision to keep four nuclear reactors offline because of faked safety reports means power shortages, and a summer of sweltering homes and offices. Lee Jin Gon has bigger concerns.
“We feel unsafe day and night,” Lee said, pointing at the cause of his nervousness, one of the closed reactors in the town of Yangnam, a four-hour journey southeast of the capital. “We became worried about nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident. Now it’s worse,” he said, adding that locals have held protests to close the whole plant.
Lee, 60, is emblematic of growing opposition to atomic power in South Korea, a movement galvanized by the meltdown of three reactors in neighboring Japan’s Fukushima in 2011. It gained more support when an investigation found nuclear plants were using components with faked safety certificates. That cost Kim Kyun Seop his job as head of state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., which runs the 23 operating reactors.
The anti-nuclear lobby is forcing President Park Geun Hye to take note. Her administration said it will review the role of nuclear power to reflect “social acceptability” in its energy plan due by the end of this year. The government had planned to build more reactors to cope with electricity demand it forecast to surge almost 60 percent by 2027.
Surveys show nuclear power is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable. Sixty-three percent of respondents to a March survey by pollster Hangil Research said they consider domestic reactors unsafe. That compared with 54 percent in a year earlier poll by the non-profit Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.
In Yangnam, Lee, head of the local branch of Nonghyup, the nationwide cooperative federation of farmers, says concern that nuclear power isn’t safe is damaging sales of the area’s rice and other farm produce.
“No one wants to come here to live,” Lee said in an interview at his office in the town 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Seoul. “We’re being isolated.”
As in Japan, South Korea began building nuclear plants decades ago to provide a stable source of energy to spur economic growth and reduce reliance on imports of oil and coal.
The current president’s father, the military ruler Park Chung Hee, commissioned the first reactor Kori No. 1, which began operations in 1978.
Twenty-two more have been built since, providing about 30 percent of the country’s electricity. Five are under construction with plans for another six by 2024. All are run by Korea Hydro, whose parent is Korea Electric Power Corp. (015760), which in turn is the monopoly distributer of electricity.
When former President Lee Myung Bak in 2008 said nuclear plants would supply 59 percent of the nation’s power by 2030 from 36 percent, his administration called it “an inevitable choice” in the face of high oil prices and to reduce carbon emissions.
To bolster the case for atomic power’s efficiency and low cost, the government said consumer prices had almost tripled over the previous 25 years, while electricity bills had only climbed 11.4 percent.
Critics say those statistics are misleading because the government controls power prices and sets them at lower rates than the cost of producing the electricity.
“The unreasonable price structure of electricity is the key cause of Korea’s frequent power shortages,” said Yun Won Cheol, an economics and finance professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. “The cost of producing power is more expensive than the cost of using power.”
That shows up in the books of Korea Electric Power, which reported a combined 11.2 trillion won ($10 billion) in losses in the past five years.
With the government keeping electricity prices low, the nation gorges on it. South Korea consumes power at almost twice the OECD average relative to the size of its economy, according to Hyundai Research Institute. Demand has grown to “an excessive level” with supply failing to keep pace, Hyundai Research said in a June 19 report.
Power producers may need to spend an estimated 70 trillion won to add 50,923 megawatts of generation capacity by 2027 to meet a 3.4 percent annual rise in demand, according to the government’s bi-annual energy outlook released in February.
Park’s government has more immediate concerns. With the shutdowns of some reactors in May, demand may exceed supply by 1.98 gigawatts during peak demand periods in August, “an unprecedented level,” the energy ministry said on May 31. The nation issued yesterday a preliminary warning for a possible power shortage, according to the Korea Power Exchange.
That leaves the government focused on curbing consumption to prevent blackouts.
Samsung Electronics Co. (005930), Hyundai Motor Co., Posco and other industrial users, which consume about half the nation’s energy, have been ordered to cut electricity usage by as much as 15 percent during peak-demand hours.
Thermostats in offices will be kept above 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit). To beat the sweltering heat, state-run Korea National Oil Corp. advised male employees to come to work in shorts.
Clothing retailers are worried customers may avoid trying on clothes if stores are too hot, said Lee Dong Hee, director at Myeongdong Special Tourism Zone Council, a shopping area popular with Japanese and Chinese tourists.
“Shop owners are extremely resentful about having to take the brunt of the power shortages because it’s the government that has failed to meet power demand,” Lee said.
The government now needs to focus on alternative energy, said Kim Ik Jung, a microbiology professor at Dongguk University and head of research at Gyeongju Environmental Movement Federation.
“It’s a simple probability question; Korea can never be free from nuclear disasters unless it shuts down all of its reactors,” Kim said in an interview. “The government hasn’t spent enough money on alternative energy.”
Wind, solar and other alternatives accounted for 1.3 percent of South Korea’s power supply in 2010, compared with 10 percent in the U.S. and Japan, 14 percent in France and 18 percent in Germany, according to Hyundai Research.
The government in 2008 set a target for renewables to account for 11 percent of energy supply by 2030, requiring about 112 trillion won in public and private financing. The energy ministry said May 10 it would come up with a new target in its next long-term energy policy.
For Lee and his neighbors in Yangnam that’s too late. He and about 1,000 residents are demanding their houses be relocated, at least far enough out of sight of the nuclear plant. Lee’s not considering leaving the town.
“This is my home, where I was born and where I grew up.”