South Korean President Moon Jae-in won the May election promising to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal and nuclear power. Recently, Moon has clarified the details of his plan, which will entail the phasing out of coal-fired power plants, the blocking of new nuclear plants, and an increase in natural gas and clean energy sources. The move is a departure from the previous nuclear focused energy policies.
Analysts are split on the policy. Yun Sun-Jin, who studies energy and environmental policy at Seoul National University (SNU), said “It is a historical, transitional moment.” She said the changes will help South Korea cut air pollution, avoid nuclear accidents, and meet its pledge to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.
Others have questioned whether the nation will be able to replace current power sources quickly enough to avoid power disruptions and price hikes. Unsurprisingly, advocates of nuclear power have also opposed the changes.
For decades, nuclear power was promoted in South Korea as the best way to meet the growing energy needs of a country with limited resources. By 2016, nuclear reactors were providing a third of the nation’s electricity and South Korea had become the world’s fifth largest producer of nuclear energy, according to the World Nuclear Association. Meanwhile, renewable energy has been largely ignored. In 2015, South Korea ranked 45th on a list of 46 countries according to their share of renewables as an energy source. When the Fukushima disaster impacted public opinion on nuclear power, the administration at the time decided to build even more coal plants instead of turning to renewables. Following through on those plans would have made it impossible to meet the country’s Paris accord target of a 37 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
On June 19th, Moon spoke of a new path towards “a nuclear-free nation,” at a ceremony for the closure of the nation’s first nuclear power plant. He has suggested decommissioning other plants at the end of their licenses, and stopping new nuclear projects to reduce nuclear’s share of energy by almost one half. Moon also plans to close 10 older coal plants, ban the construction of new ones, and eliminate the use of oil. In order to compensate, he plans to double imports of natural gas by 2030 and increase renewables to provide 20 percent of total energy.
The move is controversial, with many energy analysts convinced the country will face an uphill battle in meeting energy needs. Environmentalists, of course, have praised Moon’s plans. Only time will tell whether the country can adapt to the sweeping changes.