A campaign promise to scale back South Korea’s reliance on coal and nuclear power helped Moon Jae-in win the nation’s 10 May presidential election. In recent weeks he has fleshed out the details: He plans to phase out coal-fired power plants, block the construction of new nuclear plants, and ramp up the country’s reliance on natural gas and renewable energy. It is a dramatic reversal of the country’s previous nuclear-centric energy policy. And it has split energy economists, editorial pundits, and the academic community.
“It is a historical, transitional moment,” says Yun Sun-Jin, who studies environmental and energy policy at Seoul National University (SNU). The shift will help the country meet its pledge to cut greenhouse emissions, reduce local air pollution, and cut the risk of nuclear accidents, she says.
But some analysts wonder whether the country will be able to scale up new power sources fast enough to avoid price hikes and power disruptions. Nuclear power advocates, for their part, are appalled. A “distortion of facts is creating and spreading an ungrounded phobia” against nuclear energy, says Joo Han Gyu, a nuclear engineer at SNU. “My students are deeply disappointed” with the new policy, Joo adds. An unnamed nuclear engineering professor told local media his once thriving department is now “like a funeral parlor.”
For several decades, South Korea aggressively promoted nuclear power,…