Nuclear power turns off South Koreans after Fukushima
A survey shows that 63 per cent of respondents consider nuclear plants to be unsafe; government vows to review policy as power demand soars
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 at the Fukushima power plant in Japan 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 Company, which runs the 23 operating reactors.
The anti-nuclear lobby is forcing President Park Geun-hye to take note. Her administration said it would 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 per cent by the year 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 per cent in a poll conducted a year earlier by the non-profit Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.
In Yangnam, Lee, head of the local branch of Nonghyup, the nationwide co-operative federation of farmers, says safety concerns about nuclear power are 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 kilo- metres from Seoul. "We're being isolated."
When then-president Lee Myung-bak said in 2008 that nuclear plants would supply 59 per cent of the nation's power by 2030, up from 36 per cent then, his administration called it "an inevitable choice" in the face of high oil prices and the need 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 per cent.
But 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.
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.
But with the shutdowns of reactors in May, demand may exceed supply by 1.98 gigawatts during peak demand periods this month, "an unprecedented level", the energy ministry said in May.
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.
Wind, solar and other alternatives accounted for only 1.3 per cent of South Korea's power supply in 2010, compared with 10 per cent in the US and Japan, and 14 per cent in France, according to Hyundai Research.