SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in has vowed to lead his country to a “nuclear-free era”, but in an ironic twist nuclear capacity is on track to hit a record during his five-year term.
The rise reflects the lag time for change, but also a surprise defeat on shuttering two partially built reactors that could hamper Moon’s efforts to slash reliance on both nuclear and coal and boost renewable energy.
The government will release its mid- and long-term energy blue-print next month, and analysts say it faces a tough task to boost renewable energy to 20 percent of the power mix by 2030 and increase gas usage given a rise in both nuclear and coal capacity.
“The new government seems to have a strong will and change starts with improving the system for renewables ... but so far it’s all talk and no action,” said Lee Seong-ho, researcher at Sejong University’s Climate Change Research Center.
Nuclear contributes about 30 percent of South Korea’s electricity, but Moon’s push for change resonated with public concerns over nuclear safety.
After taking office in May, he canceled plans to build six new reactors and to extend the life of ageing reactors.
He also suspended construction of two partly built reactors to let the public decide their fate in a poll, but in a surprise result, the vote favored completing construction.
The decision means South Korea’s installed nuclear capacity is expected to reach to 28.9 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, up 28 percent from the current 22.5 GW, according to the country’s nuclear exit plan.
Roh Dong-seok, senior research fellow at the state-run Korea Energy Economic Institute, said the country’s share of nuclear-generated electricity could rise to about 35 percent, based on a utilization rate for nuclear reactors of 80 percent.
At a rate of 0.5 reactors per million people, this gives South Korea the world’s second-highest share of nuclear power stations in relation to its population, behind France’s rate of 0.9 reactors per million, according to Reuters calculations.
Nuclear capacity will still be capped below the 30.9 GW targeted for 2022 under a 2015 energy blueprint, but will rise beyond the 26.1 GW that would have been expected if the two partly completed plants were axed.
However, more nuclear power, as well as plans for new coal-fired plants, make finding room for other fuel sources difficult.
“The more we use nuclear ... the less we would run gas-fired plants,” said Kang Seung-jin, energy professor at Korea Polytechnic University.
The number of nuclear plants is now set to hit 28 in the mid-2020s, from 24 at present, before falling to 14 by 2038 as ageing plants retire.
Nine new coal plants are also due to be built, although the government is in talks with utilities about converting four of these to natural gas.
Other measures to support gas are being considered.
“For one, it’s raising taxes on thermal coal or imposing environmental taxes on coal for carbon dioxide emissions,” said a member of the energy ministry’s working group for a new energy policy, declining to be named as he was not authorized to speak prior to the plan’s official release.
“However this won’t be easy because the price gap between coal and gas is wide,” he said.
“The second option is putting a cap on coal power generation ... and the third is a temporary shutdown of old coal power plants when air pollution levels peak.”
The energy plan will lay out how much capacity the country should build in which areas by 2031, with Moon targeting a four-fold rise in renewable energy.
Analysts say more changes will be needed to support gas and renewables, such as easing licensing regulations for renewable generation and enacting dormant legislation that would prioritize cleaner energy.
“We need specific (investment) plans and ideas ... The devil is in the detail,” said Lee.
Reporting By Jane Chung in SEOUL and Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; Editing by Richard Pullin