by Michael Shellenberger
On September 12, anti-nuclear protesters with Friends of the Earth (FOE) held a rally in Seoul, South Korea. They wore plastic replicas of traditional Korean masks and held up signs reading, “Don’t Forget the Gyeongju Earthquake. Remember Fukushima.”
One year previously an earthquake in Gyeongju (“key-ung-ju”) rattled South Koreans, literally and figuratively. Until then, most Koreans thought their country was immune to earthquakes as large as the one that triggered the 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan.
Since the Fukushima disaster, FOE and its close ally, Greenpeace, have poured millions into East Asian nations to shut down nuclear power plants. In South Korea, FOE-Greenpeace funded a large class action lawsuit, sophisticated video and social media engagement, and protests.
But their greatest coup was the Hollywood-style anti-nuclear disaster movie, “Pandora,” which was released late last year and watched by five million South Koreans. FOE-Greenpeace supported the film with protests and screenings.
“Pandora” propelled to the presidency an anti-nuclear candidate, Moon Jae-in. Shortly after he was elected on May 9, Moon created a “citizen’s jury” to determine whether to halt construction on two partially-completed nuclear reactors.
Last weekend the 478-member jury participated in a “debate camp” and next Friday, on October 20, the jury will deliver its verdict to President Moon, who has said he will respect and enforce their decision.
But Moon hasn’t been shy about his anti-nuclear views. After shutting down one nuclear plant Moon gave a speech in which he claimed Fukushima killed 1,600 people.
On September 12, the day of FOE’s rally, Moon’s Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy said, ”Most nuclear reactors in South Korea are located in populous regions, which poses a greater risk in the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake.”
In truth, the 1,600 people who died after Fukushima did so during an entirely unnecessary and indeed counterproductive evacuation — one that was an outcome of the kind of fear-mongering engaged in by Moon, FOE, and Greenpeace.
And at a size 350,000 times smaller than the 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan, the Gyeongju earthquake was, if anything, further proof of what seismologists had long suspected: South Korea appears immune from earthquakes the size of the one that triggered a tsunami that killed 15,000 people and caused the Fukushima meltdowns, which killed precisely no one.
FOE’s War on Peace, Prosperity, and Nature
Last Monday I landed in Seoul to deliver an open letter signed by esteemed environmental scientists and energy experts warning the citizen’s jury of the FOE-Greenpeace misinformation campaign.
South Korea’s largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, covered my visit, sending a photographer to the airport to take a photo of me on arrival, bleary-eyed and eyebrows raised.
At a packed press conference in Seoul, I was asked what I thought of the claim by the energy minister that the Moon government could phase out nuclear plants at home but still sell them abroad.
Nobody’s going to buy a Hyundai, I said, if President Moon says they are too dangerous, and phases them out at home. Britain and Kenya are already rethinking their plans to hire the Koreans to build nuclear plants.
The reporters mostly asked about the safety of South Korea’s nuclear plants. I told them that moving away from nuclear would result in many more premature deaths from air pollution and accidents like the 1995 natural gas explosion that killed 60 schoolchildren in Daegu, South Korea.
What about the economy? Of the $94 billion South Korea must spend every year importing energy, it only spends about $500 million on nuclear fuels and other materials — about a half of one percent. Almost all of the rest is spent on oil, natural gas, and coal.
Replacing South Korea’s nuclear plants with natural gas and renewables would roughly double electricity prices and — given the tight relationship between cheap energy and employment in South Korea — likely kill hundreds of thousands of good jobs.
“We don’t have domestic energy supplies and so without nuclear,” the former president of the Korean Nuclear Society told me, “we are as good as slaves."
Perhaps most troubling is that a nuclear phase-out in South Korea would destroy one of the best means of creating peace with North Korea.
In the mid-1990s, the United States and South Korea started construction of two light water reactors in North Korea in an effort to use atoms for peace instead of for war.
The arrangement broke down after President George W. Bush gave a 2002 speech claiming North Korea was part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran.
One of FOE-Greenpeace’s biggest lies about nuclear energy is that it leads to weapons. Korea demonstrates that the opposite is true: North Korea has a nuclear bomb and no nuclear energy, while South Korea has nuclear energy and no bomb.
The inverse relationship between energy and weapons isn’t coincidental. In order for South Korea to gain access to the uranium its plants use as fuel it had to agree to not get a weapon and join the nonproliferation treaty.
Now, with North Korea testing thermonuclear weapons designs and long-range ballistic missiles, many experts believe the world is closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Moon, FOE-Greenpeace, and other anti-nuclear energy groups claim to want peace, prosperity, and environmental protection, but few things would imperil all three more than a nuclear phase-out in South Korea.
Unmasking the Anti-Nuclear FOE
In the 1960s, most conservationists favored nuclear plants as a clean energy alternative to coal plants and hydroelectric dams and only turned away from nuclear with the rise of open anti-humanism.
An influential group of conservationists within Sierra Club feared that cheap, abundant electricity from nuclear would result in overpopulation and resource depletion. “Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” said one activist, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”
Recognizing that overtly misanthropic appeals wouldn’t work, anti-nuclear groups sought to frighten the public. “If you’re trying to get people aroused about what is going on,” admitted an anti-nuclear leader, “you use the most emotional issue you can find.” Said another: “I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end is fine.”
Playing dirty included using fossil fuel money. In 1969, FOE’s founding donation of $80,000 — $500,000 in 2017 dollars — came from Robert Anderson, owner of oil company Atlantic Richfield.  “What was David Brower doing accepting money from an oilman?” even his highly sympathetic biographer wondered. 
The answer is that he was trying to kill nuclear power. “There’s no more important issue in my life now than to do everything I can,” Brower said a few years later, "and see that Friends of the Earth does everything it can, here and abroad to stop the nuclear experiment before it’s too late.”
Since then, anti-nuclear groups have funded much of their work with donations from fossil fuel and renewable energy investors, as well as others who stand to benefit from killing nuclear plants.
- In 2012, the Sierra Club was forced to admit taking $26 million from a natural gas company and today has taken over $100 million from natural gas and renewable energy investor Michael Bloomberg.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) accepts large donations from investors in both natural gas and renewables who stand to benefit from killing nuclear plants in California and New York.
- And the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) — which led the effort to kill nuclear power in Illinois — is funded by natural gas and renewable energy interests.
Are natural gas and renewable energy interests funding efforts by FOE, Greenpeace, and President Moon to kill nuclear energy in Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of the world?
FOE-Greenpeace unsurprisingly keep their donors secret, and have not revealed who is paying for their anti-nuclear advocacy.
The obvious winners of Moon’s policy would be the companies that import natural gas, and build solar and wind farms. "South Korea’s [liquified natural gas] imports could jump by more than 50 percent by 2030,” Reuters reported.
While Moon is pushing a long-term policy, it is notable that his short-term efforts are focused on halting construction of two new reactors. If they aren’t built, his government will be able to grant very large contracts to natural gas and renewable energy developers — perhaps, even, some who are supporters of the Moon government.
How Atomic Humanists Will Win
At their September 12th protest designed to alarm South Koreans, FOE protesters wore fake Hahoetal masks, which are used in the ancient Hahoe dramas of popular culture. The dramas are about ordinary people exposing the rich as greedy and exorcising society of evil spirits in order to usher in an era of prosperity.
Atomic humanists around the world should take a page from the Hahoe dramas and unmask the anti-nuclear anti-humanists. FOE-Greenpeace claims to be seeking peace, prosperity, and environmental protection, but an anti-nuclear phase-out in South Korea would undermine all three. And it’s clear why: the FOE-Greenpeace agenda has never been to protect humankind but rather to punish us for our supposed transgressions.
Whenever there is a nuclear phase-out the big winners are — surprise, surprise — the very same rich and powerful people who donate to groups like FOE. The donors and board members of FOE-Greenpeace, Sierra Club, NRDC, and myriad others are the ones who win the government contracts to build solar and wind farms, burn dirty “renewable” biomass, and import natural gas from the United States and Russia.
The good news is that the pro-nuclear resistance movement is gaining momentum in Korea. While there in late August, I travelled to the southern part of the country to meet with workers and express my solidarity. They are organizing increasingly aggressive and inspiring protests.
And now the students are joining them. The same day our open letter to the citizen’s jury appeared on the front page of the country’s largest newspaper, so too did a petition from Seoul National University students. And last Wednesday I gave a speech and joined a group of students who were organizing protests and petitions at KAIST, South Korea’s MIT.
Will it be enough to make a difference? It depends on who you ask. Some pro-nuclear advocates in South Korea say the whole citizen’s jury process — which Moon borrowed from a German effort to close its nuclear plants by instilling fear in the public — was rigged from the beginning. Others say the tide has been turning toward the pro-nuclear side over the last few weeks.
As in New York, local jobs-focused advocacy works. “In a strange turn of events,” reported a local newspaper, “residents who once opposed nuclear power now oppose construction suspension.” The reason is because “an end to nuclear power will mean ‘a disaster for local employment and economies.’ The job issue is obviously a real one.”
The day I arrived, South Korean newspapers reported that Europe had finally approved Korea’s APR-1400 nuclear design to be constructed in Europe. The APR-1400 is the only plant whose construction costs have come down over time, even as its size was increased 40 percent (thus defying the widespread view that nuclear plants must get smaller to get cheaper).
“I think the European approval gave South Koreans something to hope for, and to lose,” one long-time industry observer told me. “It might be one of things that pushes the citizen’s jury to support the completion of construction of Shin-Kori 5 & 6.”
Environmental Progress has been proud to offer our own support of the citizen’s jury. On my fourth and most recent visit to South Korea, I had a chance to walk a group of the country’s top news reporters through the basic evidence on fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables. I was supposed to speak for 20 minutes but the interest was so high that I spoke for 40 minutes, and everyone stayed for 90.
Most of the questions asked by the reporters were about safety, and one asked, “If your information is correct, why is it so different from what anti-nuclear groups are saying? How are we supposed to know who is right?”
I had a similar reaction to my TEDx talk in Berlin a few weeks ago. Many Germans simply could not believe how few people died and will die from the Chernobyl accident (under 200) and that nobody died or will die from the meltdowns at Fukushima.
How could it be that everything we were told is not only wrong, but often the opposite of the truth?
The question indicates that we atomic humanists have a very long campaign ahead of us — one that will take decades, not years. I am increasingly of the view that victory is inevitable, but will require losing many battles in the meantime.
Whatever the result of the citizen’s jury, which will be announced this Friday, I will return to South Korea on October 26th and 27th to either celebrate or mourn with the workers and students, who together signify key additions to the global atomic humanist movement.
In the end, nuclear is our only source of energy with a transcendent moral purpose, to lift all humans out of poverty, reverse humankind’s negative environmental impact, and guarantee peace. To paraphrase Churchill, human beings always end up doing the right thing after first exhausting all other options.
1. Wyss, R. 2016. The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Columbia University Press, p. 274.
Turner, T. 2015. The Making of the Environmental Movement, University of California Press, p. 161.
2. Turner, 161.
3. Wyss, 274.