Nuclear-free Korea will struggle for energy

What are the options for South Korea without nuclear energy?

Sanghyun Hong

Environment & energy | Asia, East Asia

9 July 2018

The Korean Government’s energy roadmap puts the country’s electricity sector at a crossroads, Sanghyun Hong writes.

The Inter-Korean Summit received much attention globally and was a valuable first step toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. About six months earlier, another important meeting was held on South Korea’s nuclear future – the future of nuclear energy.

Based on the resulting citizen’s jury report, the South Korean government subsequently published its eighth Basic Plan for Electricity Supply and Demand which aims to increase the share of renewable electricity generation in the country from 7 per cent in 2017 to 20 per cent by 2030. It also reduces the number of nuclear reactors in the country from 24 in 2018 to 14 by 2038.

Despite the goal of increasing the share of renewables, environmental organisations criticised the roadmap as insufficient and lacking in ambition in phasing-out nuclear and coal-powered electricity plants. These criticisms raise a series of questions: what would happen if South Korea removes both nuclear and coal, or one of them, from its electricity-generation portfolio? Does it have a sufficient amount of alternative (i.e. renewable) energy sources?

Answering these fundamental questions forces us to face an inconvenient truth.

More on this: Could nuclear be a power of good?

But first, to answer these questions, we need to understand that around the world potential renewable energy resources are inversely correlated with population density. Denmark, with a population density of 130 people per square kilometre, is the only country among all the member countries of the International Energy Agency with a share of renewables greater than 30 per cent (excluding hydroelectric power). This is thanks to its plentiful offshore wind energy.

For South Korea, which has a population density of more than 500 people per square kilometre, the chance of producing its entire electricity demand from non-hydroelectric renewables is next to nothing. Our previous work estimated that the maximum potential of renewables in South Korea (including hydroelectric) would be less than 30 per cent of its annual electricity demand.

What makes things even more challenging is that demand for electricity makes up less than 30 per cent of the total demand for energy, including for heating, transport and other industrial purposes. In our recent study, we concluded that, at best, renewables will be able to provide about 10 per cent of the country’s total energy demand.

If nuclear power is phased out, what options are left for South Korea?

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Given the limited potential of renewables, natural gas is the last resort if both nuclear and coal are to be phased out, as occurred in the United Kingdom and Japan. Switching to gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short-term due to the lower share of coal; however, it would lock emissions into the electricity sector in the long term. If only nuclear power were to be phased out, as occurred in Germany, just one option is left: a combination of coal and gas with a small fraction of renewables.

Coal is cheap and dirty, emitting carbon and finer dust, while gas is expensive, volatile, and also produces emissions. So, a mixture of these two fossil fuels with a maximum share of renewables would provide a ‘suboptimal’ situation which is not too expensive and not too dirty, but far from cheap and clean. In other words, South Korea’s electricity mix would become much like Australia’s.

Energy storage and energy efficiency are also important for achieving a sustainable electricity mix. Energy storage may allow for increasing the share of renewables slightly by reducing intermittency, but it cannot change their physical and geographical limitations. Higher energy efficiency on the part of consumers would lower the required generation capacity. However, to achieve 100 per cent renewable electricity generation, annual demand would need to be reduced by 70 per cent. Both energy storage and energy efficiency are not fundamental solutions, only additional actions.

More on this: The nuclear option

The bad news is that if nuclear power is to be phased out, the only realistic pathways laid before South Korea are regrettable. The public rejection of nuclear power may lead its future energy mix down one of these pathways.

The good news is that South Korea is one of the few countries to have sufficient expertise, experience and domestic manufacturing facilities needed to expand its reliance on nuclear power in the decades to come. The debate on the planned fifth and sixth and reactors of the Shin Kori power plant shows that public education could counteract the public’s fear of nuclear, which is based on non-scientific claims.

Energy is a complex topic which requires a comprehensive understanding of technology, policy, economics, and social acceptance. However, ignoring the inconvenient truth and searching for unviable options will not guarantee a better future for South Korea.

This article is based on the author’s paper ‘At the crossroads: An uncertain future facing the electricity‐generation sector in South Korea, co-written with Barry Brook and published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies in April 2018. All articles in the journal are free to read and download.

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