South Korea’s Nuclear Dilemma

In light of some recent events, perhaps “nuclear” and “north” may be a hot keyword in current affairs. However, this article will explore a different “nuclear” regarding the “South”- recent nuclear policy in South Korea.


The election of President Moon Jae-in last May has brought numerous changes to Korea’s government. He currently enjoys a high approval rating that is sitting in the 70~80% range, which is a drastic contrast to the previous president’s all-time low of 4%. As if to proclaim the regime change, Moon’s administration’s policies often significantly differ from the past two conservative administrations’. One of President Moon’s campaign promises include the backtracking from the use of nuclear power. True to his word, during the event in Busan to mark the decommissioning of Kori-1, South Korea’s first nuclear reactor, he officially announced that nuclear power had no place in South Korea’s future energy policy.


Adding to the backtracking of plans to build new nuclear reactors, he hinted that reactors currently being built may also be scrapped. He announced that the decommissioning of South Korea’s first nuclear power reactor will signal the commencement of Korea’s exit from nuclear power.


This policy has been met with both praise and criticism. Since the 2011 earthquake in Japan, where the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster occurred, there has been mounting concern regarding nuclear power plants. Unlike Canada and the United States which enjoy a large geographical area, Korea’s smaller geographical area means that nuclear reactors are often located close to urban centres. This raised huge safety concerns where an accident, such as one that occurred in Japan, will be disastrous. In the worst case scenario, it may potentially yield a large area of Korea uninhabitable due to nuclear fallout. While nuclear power is mainly a very safe source of energy with a chance of something going awry very slim, an accident will nonetheless have catastrophic consequences to South Korea.

In the opposite side, the proponents of nuclear energy claims that this will severely hurt Korea’s economy. In addition to nuclear energy accounting for a large portion (30% in 2015) of South Korea’s energy production, it is also a much efficient form of energy production that surpasses fossil fuels in terms of being “green.” South Korea has also been hoping to establish itself as a nuclear energy exporter, in which successful bids surmount to billions of dollars in economic gain. An exit from nuclear power would not only lead to increased electricity prices domestically, it could also cost Korea billions of dollars in potential nuclear exports. Many also argue that acting over safety concerns of domestic nuclear reactors is in vain, as China has many nuclear reactors that are located in close proximity to Korea that will also have disastrous consequences should something goes amiss.

Despite this dilemma, South Korea’s backtrack from nuclear power has already started. Nonetheless, the issue is still being hotly debated, with advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the argument. The issue, simplified, is whether added safety against an unlikely but potentially catastrophic event is worth the significant economic cost that will inflict on South Korea.

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