South Korea’s nuclear future is a new election battleground

South Korea’s leading presidential candidates are offering diverging visions on the future of nuclear power, though both agree that the nation must soften its plans to phase out the power source to meet climate targets.

The front-runner Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party doesn’t want any new atomic plants, but is open to operating reactors that are currently under construction. Lee’s top contender Yoon Seok-yeol from the opposition People Power Party, on the other hand, wants nuclear to account for 30% of total energy generation, reversing President Moon Jae-in’s plans to gradually ditch reactors.

The candidates are reassessing policies on nuclear power at a time when nations from China to France are moving forward with new plants in the quest for more reliable and less-polluting forms of energy. Since Moon took the reins in 2017, South Korea has adopted a phase-out policy on nuclear energy because of concerns over safety in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The election is set for March 9. Term restrictions prevent Moon from running again, paving the way for Lee’s candidacy. While the race is too close to call, any outcome could reshape the country’s decarbonization strategy.

The two leading candidates’ varying views “will have more long-term implications on Korea’s nuclear capacity than short term,” said David Kang, a BloombergNEF analyst. “Long-term views on nuclear, however, strongly affect the level of near-term support needed for other zero-carbon technologies such as renewables.”

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential election candidate of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party, during a news conference in Seoul on Jan. 24. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential election candidate of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, during a news conference in Seoul on Jan. 24. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

South Korea aims to reach climate neutrality by 2050 under the Green New Deal, along with its bolstered plans to cut emissions by 40% from 2018 levels by 2030. Still, the Asian nation has been struggling to boost the share of renewable sources, which accounted for less than 8% of total electricity generation in 2020.

Nuclear makes up about 29% of South Korea’s power generation. Under the Moon administration, the installed capacity for nuclear is projected to fall to 19.4 gigawatts by 2034, from the current 23.3 gigawatts.

Besides permanently turning off the nation’s two oldest reactors without extending their planned lifespan, Moon also scrapped projects to build new units, including Shin Hanul No. 3 and 4 reactors. Whether to resume the construction of those units has been a contentious issue as the project was already under way, costing the nation about 780 billion won ($650 million).

In December, Yoon visited the site where the new Shin Hanul units were supposed to be built during his campaign, following his pledge to push for carbon neutrality by integrating nuclear and renewable energy. Lee also left the door open for resuming the construction of those units, saying the decision should be reconsidered, reflecting public opinion.

Another presidential candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, is taking a more aggressive stance on nuclear — supporting small modular reactors, which are expected to be faster, easier, and cheaper to build than conventional nuclear plants.

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