As the closest neighboring country, the Fukushima disaster significantly influenced the nuclear power policy of the Republic of Korea. The record-breaking earthquake in Gyeongju in September 2016, not far away from three of the world's largest and densest nuclear complexes ― Wolsong, Gori, and Hanul ― was another catalyst for increasing nuclear concerns in Korean society.
The Moon Jae-in administration is now implementing a gradual nuclear phase-out. Yet, the speed of the phase-out is too slow. The country's scheduled complete nuclear phase-out will only be achieved around the mid-2080s. Under the current plan, nuclear capacity will continue to rise for another few years reaching its peak in 2024 (27 gigawatts).
Germany plans to close its nuclear power plants by 2022 and Switzerland is aiming for 2034. Many other nuclear countries that have not yet officially confirmed the phase-out of nuclear power plants might be free from nuclear risk much earlier than South Korea. It is ironic that the Korean nuclear industry has been relentlessly criticizing the current phase-out policy as "too radical".
Risk equals probability times consequence. South Korea has the world's highest nuclear density, and its weak safety culture increases the probability of disaster. A large population and economically important infrastructure located nearby the existing nuclear complexes will bring even more dire consequences in the event of an accident. At this time of the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown, we need to remind ourselves of the lessons from the ongoing disaster and speed up to be free from the risk of another nuclear catastrophe.
Nevertheless, pro-nuclear advocates still claim that nuclear could be a solution to climate change. They also refer to Bill Gates' small modular reactor (SMR) idea. However, there are many unsolved problems in this claim. First of all, to be clear, the billionaire philanthropist suggests instead of the current large-scale reactors, possibly including the APR1400 reactor in South Korea, SMRs as a solution to climate change. Then are SMRs our future energy?
In fact, SMRs are still far away. It is likely that the first commercial SMRs will not be available in the market before 2035. It is also difficult to expect that a large enough number of SMRs could be operational before 2050. To avoid climate catastrophe, we need to cut global carbon emissions 45 percent against 2010 levels by 2030 according to the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. SMRs are simply not helpful in this timeframe.
In addition, there are only 30-plus countries in the world currently running nuclear power generation with a systematic regulatory framework in place. It takes too long for a new country to join nuclear power generation. For example, it took more than 10 years for the United Arab Emirates to start its first nuclear reactor. For renewable power generation, on the other hand, any country could start right away.
SMRs also need to prove how they off-set the lack of economies of scale with modularity in production without compromising safety regulations. The SMR proponents claim to be able to cut costs by producing large numbers in factory lines. Assessments from the Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD-NEA) show that fulfilling these claims will be a big challenge. SMRs will remain very expensive in comparison with energy efficiency and widely available renewable energies, including solar and wind.
SMRs may reduce the chances of severe accidents per unit to some extent but they cannot fully exclude them, especially in case of malicious attacks ― sabotage, terrorist attack, or act of war. SMRs are proliferation nightmares as well. Now we are dealing with 440+ nuclear reactors in 30+ countries globally and proliferation is already a big challenge. Could we manage, supervise and control thousands of reactors? I strongly doubt it.
Last but not at all least, even if SMRs get built as claimed, prove to be safe and affordable, and somehow invent a magic bullet to prevent proliferation, it is very unlikely that SMRs will secure public acceptance in thousands of places to tackle global climate crisis. People around the world have witnessed the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. It is more than enough to believe that a safe nuclear power plant is nothing but a myth.
Therefore, discussions about and investment in SMRs take attention and capital away from faster, safer, cleaner and cheaper renewable energies that can effectively help address the climate emergency now. We do not have much time left to waste anymore if we want to stop the greatest challenge facing humanity today.
Jang Daul (email@example.com) is a government relations and advocacy specialist at Greenpeace East Asia Seoul office.