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South Korea’s nuclear power U-turn irks Catholics

Groups vow to continue protests until government returns to phasing out South Korea's nuclear power plants
Environmental activists hold a protest in the South Korean capital Seoul in January of this year to demand presidential candidates make concrete pledges to get rid of nuclear power

Environmental activists hold a protest in the South Korean capital Seoul in January of this year to demand presidential candidates make concrete pledges to get rid of nuclear power. (Photo; Catholic Times of Korea)  

Published: July 21, 2022 08:36 AM GMT

Catholic activists and environmentalists have criticized the South Korean government’s U-turn on nuclear power and have vowed to continue to hold protests to demand a gradual nuclear phase-out.

The new government of President Yoon Suk-yeol has said it will embrace nuclear power as part of efforts to decarbonize the country after having first indicated it would phase it out.

“The government’s pro-nuclear policy is a regressive policy that creates anxiety not only for the present generation but also for future generations,” said Father Ki-Seok Yang, Chairman of the Ecology and Environment Committee of Suwon Diocese.

The priest made the comments during an interview last week, the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation (CPBC) reported on July 17.

“Nuclear power plants are one of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis,” Father Yang insisted.

Earlier, on July 8, the Catholic Climate Action Council of Suwon Diocese staged a protest at the Gwanghwamun Gate in Seoul to condemn the government over its reported turnaround on nuclear power policy. The protesters demanded the termination of nuclear and coal-fired power generation in the country.

The ruling People Power Party government of President Yoon Seok-youl government had officially announced to do away with the nuclear phase-out scheme. On July 5, the government announced a plan to increase nuclear power generation as a measure to tackle a power crisis in the country.

The government said the move was in line with the nation’s emphasis on a carbon-neutrality policy that prioritizes a significant cut in carbon emissions by ensuring the gradual reduction iof fossil fuels such as coal.

“It is imperative that new energy goals and directions are set so as to better accomplish carbon neutral projects and the expansion of nuclear power,” the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a statement.

The decision is in stark contrast to the Democratic Party regime of President Moon Jae-in which aimed to gradually phase out nuclear power generation. Moon’s administration, however, faced criticism for failing to introduce renewable energy amid power shortages in the country, prompting critics to press for reopening nuclear plants to plug the gap.

Moon’s government aimed to reduce nuclear energy from 30 percent in 2021 to 23.9 percent by 2030. It also had plans to increase renewable energy to 20 percent from the current 6.6 percent during this period.

South Korea passed a carbon neutrality law last year, becoming the 14th nation to legislate carbon neutrality. The law compels South Korea to reduce carbon emissions by at least 472.9 million metric tons by 2030, down from 727.6 million tons in 2018.

Catholic groups and environmentalists say it was contradictory for the government to go for carbon neutrality on the one hand and revive nuclear power plants, which they say would have “detrimental impacts” on future generations and the environment.

The protesters argue that very few countries meet the safety standards set by the European Union to run such facilities. They also argue that the domestic Korean nuclear power industry is underdeveloped to meet these standards.

The government has also released plans to resume the construction of the Shin-Hanul No. 3 and No. 4 nuclear reactors. The nuclear power share is planned to be increased by up to 30 percent in 2030.

The Korean government also plans to capitalize on the exports of new energy aboard, media reports suggest.

By 2030, South Korea aims to export nuclear power from its 10 plants and to develop its own unique Small Modular Reactor. The government also wants to reinvigorate the nuclear energy ecosystem through early project procurement.

South Korea is among the world’s most prominent nuclear energy countries and exports nuclear technology widely, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). The country is currently involved in the building of the UAE’s first nuclear power plant for US$ 20 billion.

The country currently has 25 active reactors, providing one-third of South Korea's total electricity, the WNA noted.

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