Authors: Sun Ryung Park and Charlotte Bull, UBC
In January 2023, South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol reaffirmed his willingness to reinstate the nuclear power policies that his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had sought to scrap. But this position raises questions about South Korea’s green energy transition.
‘As a key means to bolster our energy security while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we must turn our attention to nuclear power and clean hydrogen’, Yoon said. He also added, ‘Korea’s nuclear power [ecosystem] had faced challenges due to the previous phase-out policies, but we will expand nuclear power generation’.
Yoon’s nuclear U-turn is not entirely new. Since his presidential campaign in 2022, Yoon has championed nuclear power as a clean energy source. Instead of promoting solar, wind or hydroelectric energy, he has called for the construction of more nuclear reactors as a key tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In July 2022, Yoon reiterated the need to emphasise nuclear energy as an export growth driver. The 10th Basic Plan for Long-Term Electricity Supply and Demand, released in January 2023, targets raising nuclear power to 34.6 per cent of the country’s total energy mix by 2036, up from 23.4 per cent in 2018.
This policy focus signals a reversal of the nuclear phase-out policy of the Moon administration, which had vowed to shut down old nuclear reactors and sought to decrease the number of nuclear plants in operation to 17 by 2034. Currently, 20 out of South Korea’s 25 nuclear reactors are in operation and four are under maintenance.
The reversal of the nuclear phase-out policy is not confined to South Korea and is part of a global trend. Nineteen countries currently have nuclear reactors under construction. France has reversed its plan to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy. It is now building six new reactors and a dozen more small reactors. The United Kingdom also plans to build eight new reactors and 16 small modular reactors.
Even traditionally anti-nuclear states are bringing back nuclear power. Germany decided to extend the runtime of two of its three remaining nuclear power plants until April 2023. Japan’s newly published nuclear energy policy proposes maximising the use of existing nuclear power plants and building new ones, marking a major policy change since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The recent surge in nuclear momentum can be partially attributed to soaring fuel prices and growing energy security concerns exacerbated by the Russia–Ukraine war. But, more fundamentally, countries are increasingly turning to nuclear energy to meet their net zero commitments in time.
As in other countries, South Korea’s heavy dependence on imported oil and gas and its resultant high vulnerability to energy price shocks have contributed to its nuclear U-turn. This reversal yields two broader implications.
First, it shows Yoon’s inclination toward the export-oriented development strategy that was successful in the 1970s and 1980s. Being the country’s top salesman, Yoon’s commercial diplomacy seeks to position South Korea as a leader in building nuclear power abroad.
In October 2022, Poland signed a deal with South Korea to build four nuclear reactors. Turkey and Finland are also discussing building nuclear power stations using South Korean technology. In January 2023, Yoon visited the United Arab Emirates where the state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation recently completed the construction of three out of four reactors of its first nuclear power plant outside of South Korea. Yoon hopes his nuclear energy export strategy will enable further export-oriented development.
Second, Yoon’s reversal on nuclear power suggests that South Korea may be at risk of falling behind in the race to develop green technology. While the debate over whether nuclear energy qualifies as a renewable source continues, the current green technology race is revolving around solar and wind power. South Korea lags behind in these technologies and is at a competitive disadvantage.
Although the Moon government’s Green New Deal aimed to generate 20 per cent of South Korea’s power with renewables by 2030, as of July 2022 only 3.8 per cent (21 terawatt hours) of electricity generated in South Korea came from solar and wind. Yoon’s electricity plan sets a target of 21.6 per cent for the share of renewables, excluding nuclear, in total power generation by 2030, and 30.6 per cent by 2036. This marks a step back from the Moon administration’s electricity plan, which aimed to boost renewable capacity to 40 per cent by 2034.
The current green technology race is not solely aimed at combating the climate emergency but also involves a battle to invent, produce and deploy green technologies. It is a contest for dominance over future industries, with the winners determining the future hierarchy of the global economy. Losing to foreign competition makes the odds of reclaiming one’s position in the global economy vanishingly small.
Since green technology investment entails a high level of risk and uncertainty, governments must take the lead. The business sector needs clear and consistent signals from governments to justify its engagement in green technology innovation. Yoon’s shift to nuclear energy could heighten uncertainty in the private sector, leading to reduced investment. South Korea should carefully consider how its reversal on nuclear energy will affect its green trajectory.
Sun Ryung Park is a PhD candidate in political science and a Centre for Korean Research Fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia.
Charlotte Bull is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student and a Centre for Korean Research Fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia.