The government has worked to officially classify nuclear power generation as an environment-friendly economic activity.
The Ministry of Environment on Tuesday disclosed a draft revision to the national green taxonomy, called K-taxonomy, that includes atomic power generation on the list of environmentally sustainable economic activities.
It is a reasonable decision. Carbon dioxide emissions from using atomic energy to generate 1 kilowatt hour of power amounts to 12 grams, the same amount of emission from wind power and about half the carbon footprint of solar power. Nuclear power is one of the most effective alternatives to achieve the nation’s carbon neutrality goal.
But the previous Moon Jae-in administration stubbornly pushed a nuclear phase-out policy throughout his presidency, destroying the nation's world-leading nuclear power industry. Highly skilled engineers left the country for jobs in foreign countries including China. Companies that propped the national nuclear industry were driven into bankruptcy. The use of expensive natural gas and coal, which are polluting energy sources, increased to reduce atomic power generation, and Korea Electric Power Corp. is expected to suffer an operating loss of over 30 trillion won ($21.5 billion) this year.
The draft revision was expected to some extent. The current administration has emphasized nuclear energy as an important means to achieve the nation's carbon neutrality goal and secure a stable energy supply. It also took into consideration the European Union’s inclusion of nuclear energy and natural gas in its green taxonomy and other major economies recognizing nuclear energy as a key instrument to attaining carbon neutrality.
The taxonomy is a list of activities and assets contributing to global efforts for environment protection, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The list is of help to inducing investments in green projects and technologies. The Moon administration excluded nuclear from its K-taxonomy, while including liquefied natural gas and renewables such as solar and wind in the guideline late last year.
Nuclear power generation is the way to go for a country like Korea, which is a geographically poor fit for solar and wind power generation and also depends entirely on gas imports.
But nuclear energy has two issues to settle -- safety and waste. The ministry set safety and waste conditions for inclusion in K-taxonomy, but conflicts with environment groups look unavoidable over the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. The government will require the use of accident tolerant fuels -- a set of new safety-enhancing technologies -- from 2031, but it did not fix a deadline for requiring the operation of high-level radioactive waste facilities. It needs to specify a related schedule to relieve public unease. There should not be an intention to delay decisions on such a sensitive issue as the selection of a radioactive waste disposal site. The government must work out waste management measures in parallel with ones to develop the nuclear power industry.
Above all, it is urgent to revive the collapsed ecology of the national nuclear power industry. Human resources should be developed and export markets expanded. The construction of Shin Hanul reactors 3 and 4, suspended under the previous administration, must resume sooner rather than later. Investment should be promoted in small module reactors, next-generation nuclear plants and other emerging technologies.
To normalize the nation’s energy mix, the capacity factor of nuclear power plants needs to be raised. At the end of 2021, the US had 55 nuclear power plants. In spite of their average age being about 40 years old, their five-year average capacity factor -- the ratio of actual output to the theoretical maximum output -- reached 92.5 percent. On the other hand, the figure in Korea fell from 89.9 percent for five years of the Lee Myung-bak administration to 71.5 percent in the days of the Moon administration. If the capacity factor of the nation’s existing nuclear power plants is raised, they could supply more electric power than solar and wind power plants across the country can. The administration must begin a renaissance of the nation’s nuclear industry.