July 21, 2017
Why the World Needs South Korea’s Nuclear
By Michael Shellenberger
Last week I traveled to Seoul to deliver an open letter signed by some of the world’s most prestigious climate and environmental scientists urging President Moon Jae-in to reconsider South Korea’s phase-out of nuclear energy. My reason? To communicate the message that the world needs a South Korean nuclear power to achieve prosperity and environmental protection for all.
If South Korea closes its nuclear plants, no nation will buy Korean nuclear plants, just as nobody would buy a Hyundai or LG appliance if the president of South Korea declared them unsafe. And nations seeking nuclear power will have only China and Russia to buy reactors from — an outcome that is rightly feared by liberals and conservatives alike around the world.
For most of my life, I opposed nuclear energy. As a child raised by liberal peace activists, I was taught to fear it. In 1979, when I was seven, the anti-nuclear Hollywood blockbuster “China Syndrome” was released just 12 days before one of the reactors at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania melted down. Over the next year, America’s biggest rock stars toured the country performing at “No Nukes” concerts. I still remember the No Nukes poster hanging in our local food cooperative depicting a mushroom cloud.
In my 20s I worked on anti-nuclear causes. I helped to block a radioactive waste storage facility in California, and promoted solar and wind. Our most successful effort was winning a $150 billion investment by the Obama administration in solar, wind, and electric cars. I believed that we could eliminate air pollution and solve global warming through innovations with renewable sources of energy.
But almost immediately afterwards my colleagues and I started to notice some big problems with renewables. First, they are incredibly unreliable, generating power only 20 to 30 percent of the time. And despite the hype, there is no battery revolution forthcoming. The only way to store large amounts of electricity is through what’s called “pumped storage.” These are essentially large hydroelectric dams that pump water uphill during times of excess electricity and then release the water over the turbines when electricity is needed. Lithium batteries are wonderful for our cell phones and laptop computers but are extremely expensive and have very short lives.
Second, renewable fuels — whether water, sunlight, wind, or wood — require huge amounts of land and natural resources. On average, a solar farm must cover an area 150 times larger than nuclear to generate the same quantity of electricity as a nuclear plant; wind farms must cover an area 750 times larger. The reason is easy to understand: renewable fuels are energy-diffuse, meaning that there is very little energy per unit of mass compared to both fossil fuels and uranium. The energy density of the fuel in large measure determines its environmental impact.
If low energy density of solar is a problem in my home state of California, where we have large deserts available for solar farms, imagine how much more of a problem it is in South Korea, which has far more people per square kilometer. This reality goes a long way to explaining why South Korea gets just 1 percent and 0.3 percent of its electricity from solar and wind, respectively.
Indeed, replacing all of South Korea’s nuclear plants with solar would require covering an area five times the size of Seoul; replacing them with wind turbines would require covering an area 15 times larger. And none of that considers the land that would be required for pumped hydro storage — something South Korea also lacks.
The Korean nuclear plants represent 60 years of investment that will likely go to the Chinese if South Korea abandons them. The Chinese are already courting Koreans with job offers and promises of huge wages and benefits. Ultimately, a phase-out means that South Korea would not be able to sustain its supply chain, and therefore would not be able to export the plant technology or operate and supply the plant it has just finished building in the United Arab Emirates.
As a result, South Korea would need to use coal or natural gas to replace its nuclear. Coal already contributes to serious air pollution in Seoul, while natural gas is expensive. The annual cost of replacing all of South Korea’s nuclear plants with natural gas would be $10 billion on top of a one-time cost of roughly $20 billion to build new natural gas plants.
It is understandable that South Koreans are afraid of nuclear energy given the 2011 accident at Fukushima, but the solution is better regulation, better technology and public involvement, not substituting fossil fuels for nuclear.
As hard as it may be to believe, the scientific evidence is overwhelming — and has been for 40 years — proving that nuclear energy is the safest way to make reliable electricity. That’s because while air pollution kills seven million people per year, hardly anybody is harmed during even the worst nuclear accidents.
Far more deadly is fear and panic. The tsunami that hit the coast of Japan in 2011 instantly killed about 15,000 people, many of who could have survived had Japan been better prepared.
Still traumatized by that event, Japan’s Prime Minister inappropriately involved himself in managing the meltdowns at Fukushima in ways that created great harm, according to both independent investigations of the accident. Instead of sheltering in-place as is often done in response to natural disasters like typhoons, the Prime Minister ordered an evacuation that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of sick and elderly people.
Of course, fear and panic serve powerful financial interests. Should we be surprised that natural gas companies fund many of the anti-nuclear groups that spread misinformation about nuclear? The anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth — which has representatives in South Korea — received its initial funding from a wealthy oil man, while Greenpeace receives over $350 million per year from anonymous sources. All three of the largest anti-nuclear groups in the United States have budgets over $100 million per year and receive funding from oil, gas, solar and wind investors, or are invested in oil and gas, and renewable energy companies.
Nothing is more dangerous than the myth of perfect safety. The Japanese nuclear industry and government promoted the idea of perfect safety and the consequence was a failure to prepare for the worst. Now, many people in South Korea seem to want perfect safety from non-nuclear energy sources, whether it be natural gas, coal, solar or wind. But why? From what other technology do we demand perfect safety? Thousands of people die every year from car accidents, hospital medical errors, and simply falling down stairwells. The solution is not to ban cars, hospitals and stairwells but rather for the society to improve the technologies and demand greater public involvement and engagement in guaranteeing their safe use.
When I visited South Korea for the first time last April, and again last week, I interviewed dozens of ordinary people, including those in Busan who live near nuclear power plants, about their opinions about nuclear. While some said they just wanted to ban the technology outright, many more had questions about what would replace it. And more often than not the people who live near the plants said they just wanted to better understand what was happening in the plants, and wanted to know that they were being well-maintained and regulated.
Clearly, trust is lacking, and something needs to change for South Korea’s nuclear program to survive, and the proposal to phase out nuclear energy should come as a wake-up call to South Korean nuclear industry, which has done an expert job of building plants but a poor job of seriously engaging public concerns. Simply put, the nuclear industry and governments must do a better job taking seriously — and addressing — public concerns and fears.
But it is also the responsibility of any people — whether South Korean, American or Japanese — to seek to understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves, our children and our planet.
Given how important their nuclear energy sector is to the world, I encourage the South Korean people to take the time needed to properly deliberate and weigh these questions. Nothing would be more tragic — not just for the South Korean people but also for the planet and the human race as a whole — than to allow fear and panic to destroy that which is most precious.
Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and is president of Environmental Progress, an independent, Berkeley, California-based research and policy center.