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[Editorial] Self-injurious policy

Former science ministers urge government to reverse nuclear phase-out policy quickly

Thirteen senior figures who worked in the fields of science and technology under past governments urged the current administration last Thursday to reverse its nuclear phase-out policy.

They are eight former science ministers, a former environment minister, a former president of the nation’s utility monopoly Korea Electric Power Corp., a former education minister, a former chairperson of the presidential advisory council on science and technology, and a former vice minister of science.

They expressed deep concerns about the side effects of the policy such as the collapse of the nation’s nuclear power industry and the fall of its export competitiveness for nuclear power plants.

They also worried about the outflow of human resources to foreign countries. The exodus of manpower is worrying in that it can cause technological leaks and accelerate the destruction of the domestic industry ecology.

They pointed out that nuclear power generation was crucial in the global response to climate change.

According to a United Nations report last month, Korea was among six major economies lagging behind their greenhouse gas reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement. This is to some extent attributable to the policy which has led to an increase in the use of LNG to generate power. Burning gas does produce carbon dioxide, though the amount is smaller compared with burning coal.

Natural gas is much less efficient than nuclear energy in terms of power generation cost. Increasing gas use has contributed much to Kepco’s losses. It is widely believed that electricity rate hikes will be inevitable after the general election in April.

A total of 53 distinguished scientists contributed a letter to the Financial Times on Dec. 17, warning that “without nuclear (energy), our action on climate will be more difficult.” The European Parliament adopted a resolution last month that all technologies including nuclear energy are needed to combat climate change.

Separately, five senior scientists, who devoted their life to atomic energy research and the development of the nuclear industry in Korea, criticized the government’s policy.

“Korea has the world’s most outstanding technology for nuclear power generation. The policy to discontinue the excellent technology is a 21st-century mystery,” Chang In-soon, former president of Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, said Friday.

Chang and four other retired scientists recently co-authored a book on the history of Korea’s atomic energy to mark the 60th anniversary of the institute.

With the industry facing a bleak future, universities are facing difficulties attracting students who want to major in atomic energy. In Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, not a single undergraduate freshman chose atomic energy as the major this year.

The government says it is pursuing a two-track strategy of pulling out of nuclear energy at home and exporting Korea’s nuclear power plants. Which country would be willing to award a contract to Korea to construct reactors when it tries to dismantle its own nuclear energy industry for safety reasons?

China and Russia are stepping up government-led efforts to increase their share in the expanding global nuclear power plant market. If Korea keeps dismantling its industry, it will not take long for it to lose not only market opportunities but also its ability to construct atomic power plants on its own. Then, it will have to import nuclear power plants if and when they become necessary.

The 13 former officials recommended the government should immediately resume the construction of Sin Hanul Power Units 3 and 4 -- both suspended when they were 30 percent completed. The units adopted Korea’s cutting-edge reactor type “APR1400,” which obtained Design Certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The government must not underestimate Korea’s internationally-recognized atomic energy technology. It must listen to the elders, who propelled Korea from a country lacking nuclear power to one exporting nuclear power plants. The nuclear phase-out is a self-injurious policy. The government must reverse it quickly.
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