Some two dozen reactors provide about one-third of South Korea’s electricity. In 2016, the nation became the world’s fifth-largest generator of nuclear energy. Being smaller than other top producers, it has the highest density of nuclear power plants on the planet.
Since the construction of the first nuclear power plant in the 1970s, the government, nuclear facilities and the energy industry have often made decisions with little input from civic groups. But the past two decades have seen violent demonstrations against proposed nuclear facilities. Public anxieties were heightened by the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan and a 2016 earthquake in Gyeongju, which hosts six nuclear power plants within 50 kilometres of population centres.
In May 2017, Moon Jae-in, who had pledged to decrease the number of nuclear power plants, was elected president. He halted the construction of two power plants at Shin-Kori in which more than US$1 billion had already been invested. Fierce debate erupted.
The Moon government took a different tack. It used a ‘deliberative poll’ to decide whether to proceed with the additional Shin-Kori plants. In September 2017, a representative sample of 500 voters was selected on the basis of administrative district, gender and age group, and was sent briefing materials. The next month, the group was brought together for three days of discussions with neutral moderators and pro- and anti-nuclear experts. Participants were briefed on the distribution of earthquake fault lines, the safety features and other technological advances in the planned reactors, and the location of reactors near highly populated areas. Discussions were broadcast throughout the country.
The final vote on 15 October was unambiguous but surprising. Nearly 60% of respondents voted to resume construction. Yet 53.2% voted to decrease the share of nuclear in the country’s energy mix, with 35.5% voting to maintain and 9.7% voting to expand it. It was a nuanced position: respondents thought construction at Shin-Kori should continue for economic reasons; they also thought that nuclear energy should be decreased in the long run for safety reasons. Following the poll, the government resumed work on the two plants at Shin-Kori but cancelled plans to construct six more. There have been no violent protests since.