South Korea to scale back nuclear reliance following faked safety document scandal

Domestic scandal over faked security documents and public opposition to atomic power after the Fukushima disaster lead to change in direction.

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SEOUL // South Korea intends to scale back plans to increase the country’s reliance on nuclear energy amid growing public opposition to atomic power after the Fukushima disaster and a domestic scandal over faked safety documents.

Nuclear energy should account for between 22 per cent and 29 per cent of power generation capacity by 2035, compared with a 41 per cent goal introduced in the previous long-term plan in 2008, South Korea’s energy ministry said today, citing the findings of a working group of academics and state officials.

Reducing the proportion of energy coming from nuclear power will force South Korea, which imports almost all of its energy, to increase use of other fuel sources to cope with surging demand. Today’s proposal also illustrates the extent to which public opinion has shifted from a technology that’s been a mainstay of the nation’s energy policy since the first reactor was built in Kori, southeast of Seoul, in 1978.

“The implementation of energy policy doesn’t just involve the government now, it’s become an increasingly important and extremely sensitive issue for each and every citizen,” Kim Chang Seob, head of the energy ministry’s 60-member policy panel, said at a briefing.

The government earlier this week promised tighter regulation over the nuclear industry after indicting 100 officials on corruption and bribery charges, following an investigation into the use of components with faked quality control certificates. The scandal cost Kim Kyun Seop his job as head of state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., operator of the country’s reactors.

The probe found 277 faked certificates for parts used in 20 operating reactors as well as 2,010 false documents at eight plants that are offline or under construction, according to the government. “Almost all” of the components have been replaced.

Surveys show nuclear power is becoming increasingly unpopular in Korea. Sixty-three per cent of respondents to a March survey by Hangil Research said they consider domestic reactors unsafe. That compared with 54 percent in a year ago poll by the non-profit Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.

“We should minimise social conflicts regarding atomic energy’s role,” the panel said in today’s statement.

Growing support for South Korea’s anti-nuclear lobby has deepened the dilemma facing president Park Geun Hye’s government, with power demand expected to surge almost 60 per cent by 2027. In July, Park called for tighter government regulation and monitoring of the nuclear industry.

The government wants to resume operations at the shutdown reactors by the end of November, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on October 1, citing Energy Minister Yoon Sang Jick.

The energy ministry’s long-term plan will be finalised this year pending public feedback and cabinet approval. Nuclear energy accounted for 26.4 per cent of power generation capacity as of the end of 2012, according to the energy ministry.

The plan maintains the government’s target for renewable energy at 11 per cent of supply, according to the statement. The contribution of coal and natural gas would be decided later depending on a plan for greenhouse gas emissions.

Park’s predecessor Lee Myung Bak introduced a target, which remains in effect, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2020. South Korea’s carbon emissions rose 3.4 per cent to 610 million tons in 2011, according to a report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center last year.

“The government’s long-term plan should reflect a good balance between nuclear and renewables because it’s wise for the nation to avoid relying on fossil fuels,” Kim Yong Soo, a nuclear engineering professor at Hanyang University in Seoul, said before the announcement.

The draft also calls for changes to taxes on fuel as the government seeks a shift toward managing demand for energy from a system that focuses on supply, according to today’s statement. The working group proposed taxing soft coal to help curb power demand, while reducing duties on liquefied natural gas and heating oil.

Natural gas demand by South Korea is headed for a record this year. LNG purchases through August were up 15 per cent from last year, customs data show, and consumption will increase 13 per cent to about 40.9 million tons in 2013, according to research by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. The nation is the world’s second-largest buyer of liquefied natural gas.

South Korea consumes power at almost twice the average of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development relative to the size of its economy, according to the Hyundai Research Institute in Seoul. Demand has grown to “an excessive level” with supply failing to keep pace, Hyundai Research said in a June 19 report.

With the government setting power prices, state-run Korea Electric Power Corp., the monopoly electricity distributor, has reported a combined 11.2 trillion won ($10 billion) of losses over the past five years.