South Korean President Details Phase-out of Coal, Nuclear Power

During his electoral campaign, South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to end the country’s reliance on coal and also said the nation would move away from nuclear energy. He took a major step in that direction in June, saying his country would not try to extend the life of its nuclear plants, would close 10 existing coal-fired plants, and would not build any new coal plants.

The president, who took office in May 2017, has made energy policy a cornerstone of his administration and has moved quickly to implement his policies (see “A Mixed Bag of Nuclear Developments in UAE, S. Korea, Switzerland and S. Africa” in the July 2017 issue). South Korea has been among the world’s largest producers of nuclear energy and one of the few nations to export its nuclear technology. Former President Lee Myung-bak, who served from 2008 to 2013, supported nuclear energy as part of his clean energy policy that called for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, a third of the country’s electricity came from nuclear plants, and the World Nuclear Association said South Korea’s nuclear production from its 25 operating plants ranked No. 5 in the world.

Moon announced his initiatives at a June 19 ceremony in Busan to mark the closure of the Kori 1 reactor (Figure 1), the country’s oldest power plant. Kori came online in 1978. Busan, at the southeastern tip of South Korea, is home to many of the country’s nuclear facilities, in part due to its distance from North Korea.

Fig 1_Kori-nuclear-power-plant
1. Kori 1 reactor closed. A ceremony on June 19 marked the closure of the Kori 1 reactor (far right). Unit 1 came online in 1978 and was South Korea’s oldest nuclear power plant. Courtesy: Korea Kori NPP

“So far South Korea’s energy policy pursued cheap prices and efficiency. Cheap production [costs] were considered the priority while the public’s life and safety took a back seat. But it’s time for a change,” Moon said. “We will abolish our nuclear-centered energy policy and move toward a nuclear-free era.”

The country’s energy ministry said it will take 15 years or more to decommission the Kori 1 reactor, at a cost of 643.7 billion won ($569 million).

South Korea took a hard look at nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in neighboring Japan. A 2012 scandal in which plants were shut down after it was discovered parts were being supplied with fake certificates (see “Documentation Scandal Strains South Korea’s Power Supplies” in the August 2013 issue), along with a recent spate of earthquakes in southeastern South Korea, also have brought concern. Seismologists said four of the nine most-powerful quakes in the country’s history have occurred in the past three years, including a 5.8-magnitude quake—the largest since seismic activity began being recorded in 1978—in September 2016.

PIRA Energy Group, part of S&P Global Platts, earlier this year said South Korea had planned to add 20.17 GW of new coal-fired electricity generation from 2017­ to 2022, including 5 GW this year. The group reported that private-sector companies already had invested $1 billion toward construction of new coal plants. South Korea at present has 59 operating coal-fired power plants, supplying about 40% of the country’s electricity. The 10 plants that would be closed under Moon’s plan represent about 3.3 GW of the country’s generation, or about 10.6% of the nation’s total coal-fired capacity, according to the energy ministry.

The 10 plants cited for permanent closure all were temporarily closed in June 2017, and will be closed again from March to June next year to limit emissions. Moon has pledged to permanently close all coal plants aged 30 years or more during his presidential term (2017–2022). He has said the country would spend $12.2 billion this year to develop alternative energy sources, and pursue a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2030.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor.

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