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Japan and South Korea: A tale of two nuclear power strategies

Japan and South Korea: A tale of two nuclear power strategies

Korean nuclear power

It has been more than a year since one of the biggest earthquakes on record struck north eastern Japan, causing a massive tsunami in its wake that claimed the lives of more than 20 000 people . This natural calamity of truly epic proportions not only saw a massive loss of life, but led to a frighteningly calamitous meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The most serious fallout of this unprecedented disaster was undoubtedly the high casualty toll and the radioactive contamination that forced thousands to be evacuated from their homes. Due to the immensely serious nature of what befell their country, not to mention the government’s incredibly inept mismanagement of the crisis, many Japanese people understandably soured on the idea of nuclear power. The decision was made to shut down all nuclear power plants and this Saturday sees the closure of the Hokkaido electric company’s Tomari plant, the “last of Japan’s 53 atomic power stations,” according to Russia Today.

As a result of this adamant commitment to be nuclear power free, as it were, Japan faces an acute energy crisis. In the same article from RT it is revealed that before the March 11th 2011 disaster Japan “drew approximately 30 per cent of its energy from nuclear power” and was on course to generate 50 per cent from nuclear power by 2030 to accommodate “exploding energy demands.” Due to the closure of all of its nuclear power plants the expected shortfall in energy supply this summer is estimated to be about 14 per cent in Tokyo and as much as 16 per cent in western Japan.  Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano says that Japan is “facing the risk of a very severe electricity shortage.”

To meet this electricity shortage Japan will have to dramatically increase its fuel imports, which could add an “additional $100 million” to  an economy that saw its biggest trade deficit ever last year. This deficit  has risen to $50 billion in the wake of these extra oil imports.

Those most pleased with Japan opting out of using nuclear energy are the environmental groups who ardently want Japan to drastically increase its green energy infrastructure. Presently Japan gets about 8 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, but wants to raise this to 25 per cent by the year 2030. In the short term, however, Japan will probably be forced to return to relying on nuclear power for a sizable chunk of its energy supply as there simply isn’t enough electricity to power its highly industrialized economy. Dr. Howard Hayden, who works as Professor of Physics at Connecticut University, is quoted as saying that Japan “will probably go back to nuclear in due time because money talks” as the closure of almost all the country’s nuclear plants is already “costing them very dearly.” He adds that a number of factories have had to substantially scale back their operations and a few factories in Northern Japan have basically been shut down due to a shortage of power.

Despite these recent developments, and a general shift in global public sentiment in the wake of last year’s epic tsunami and resultant human catastrophe, South Korea is seemingly intent on going in the opposite direction. A headline today in the Korea Times announces that Korea has started work on two new nuclear reactors. The good news for South Korean industry is that these two new reactors will “use locally made components for all their critical systems.” Previously systems such as the “man-machine interface system that helps run the power generation unit and the reactor coolant pumps,” were either based on foreign designs or imported. The New Uljin 1 and 2 reactors are to be “built at the Uljin power plant in North Gyeongsang Province,” about 330 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and the government has allocated 7 trillion won (US$6.18 billion) for the project. The New Uljin 1 unit is projected to be completed around April 2017, with the second unit slated to be finished by the end of February 2018.

I was very surprised to learn that not only does Korea currently have 21 commercial reactors, but the country “has plans to build 12 new reactors by 2022,” all apparently “in an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on crude oil, natural gas and coal.” This highlights a central problem with the perception animating Korea’s drive to expand its nuclear energy base, namely that while it is certainly a cleaner form of energy than those just quoted, it is not a truly clean energy by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t believe the apologists who continue to claim that it is. While carbon emissions might be cut to zero with a nuclear power plant, the issue of nuclear waste and the terrifying risk of meltdown, as last year’s tragic Fukushima scenario made awfully clear, are as significantly pertinent as ever. What South Korea and Japan both need, along with the entire world, is the most concerted effort in human history to radically alter energy generation and consumption patterns in the face of the greatest trans-generational and globe-encompassing challenge we have ever faced as species. Anything short of this all planetary hands (and, of course, brains) on deck approach spells imminent ecological disaster and the greatest imaginable betrayal to future generations. Labelling the crisis we face as urgent doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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