On March 10, antinuclear groups staged a rally in the capital of South Korea, Seoul, to voice opposition to nuclear power on the eve of the first anniversary of Fukushima. Over 5,000 people, including many young people and families with children, took part in the rally. The turnout was one of the biggest in recent memory for an antinuclear demonstration. The rally adopted a declaration demanding that the government abandon its policy to promote nuclear power.
South Korea operates 21 reactors and plans to build 13 more ― seven of them under construction and six others planned ― by 2024 to increase the nuclear share of the country’s electricity production to 48.5 percent from 31.2 percent last year. But the scheme may face a strong headwind as surveys have shown a rising antinuclear tide among the public in the wake of the Fukushima accident. In South Korea, before the Fukushima accident, a small number of environmental groups raised voices for abandoning nuclear power, but June last year the Joint Action for Nuclear-free Society, a coalition of about 40 civic organizations was formed. A growing number of civic activists, lawyers, professors and religious leaders have participated in the movement to seek alternatives to the government’s plan to expand the nuclear capacity to meet an ever-increasing demand for electricity.
In a poll taken by the Korea Energy Economics Institute in 2009, about 42 percent of Koreans favored nuclear power and 38.8 percent remained neutral. But the corresponding figures fell to 16.9 percent and 23.8 percent in a survey conducted last August. The proportion of respondents who opposed it jumped to 59.3 percent from 19.2 percent over the cited period.
Less than half felt nuclear power was dangerous in 2009 but the figure climbed to 75.6 percent in 2011 after Fukushima. Confidence in the safety of local nuclear power stations weakened from 70.5 percent to 52.6 percent.
More than 70 percent were in favor of building more reactors in 2009 but the proportion shrank to 38 percent last year. Nearly 55 percent said they found no problem with a nuclear plant being built in the area near where they lived in 2009, but only 29.5 percent replied so in 2011.
Public sentiment against nuclear power was exacerbated particularly in the provinces of North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang and South Jeolla and the southeastern city of Busan, where most of the reactors in operation or planned are located.
Little swayed by the surge in the antinuclear tide, President Lee Myung-bak committed himself to carrying out the nuclear expansion plan in a recent news conference. Lee argued that for Korea, which “does not produce a drop of oil,” there is no other option but nuclear power to meet the growing demand for electricity. He said abandoning nuclear energy would cause electricity rates to rise by as much as 40 percent.
Lee, who played a decisive role in gaining a US$40 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 to construct and operate four reactors, reiterated his pledge to make Korea one of the five major players in the global nuclear industry. Two years ago, his administration announced a plan to export 80 reactors by 2030 to take a 20 percent share of the world market. Lee also said it would take at least three to four decades before renewable energy becomes economically viable.
His advocacy of nuclear power has drawn criticism from antinuclear activists. “He is leading the nation in the wrong direction to make us rely on nuclear power and thus burdened with its dangers forever,” Kim Hye-jeong, an activist who works for the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement said: “Lee’s nuclear policy is just anachronistic and turns a blind eye to the dominant public opinion.”
The Joint Action for Nuclear-free Society also issued a statement asserting Lee was either misinformed or distorted the facts to make his case for nuclear expansion. The group said Germany has not seen higher utility bills and has continued to export electricity even after shutting down eight reactors in 2011 as part of a plan to decommission all 17 reactors by 2022.
In support of the antinuclear campaign, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and heads of 45 small cities, counties and wards gathered in February to adopt a declaration pledging to go nuclear-free and turn to renewable energy. Park has pushed an initiative to cut energy consumption in the capital over the coming three years by the same amount that would make it possible to do away with a nuclear reactor.
The 'no to nuclear power' movement has recently taken on an increasing political implication as liberal and progressive opposition parties are trying to publicize their stances in the run-up to the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit slated for March 26-27. Dozens of former and incumbent lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic United Party launched a group in February to push for the country’s abolition of nuclear power and transformation toward renewable energy. The DUP leaders, who have opposed Seoul’s hosting of the second nuclear summit initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama, are expected to include the group’s demands in the list of the party’s pledges for the April 11, parliamentary elections.
Sources: The Korea Herald, 6 March 2012 / Mainichi Daily News, 11 March 2012