Coal currently powers about 40% of South Korea’s electricity mix, according to S&P Global.
The country plans to increase the contribution of nuclear power in its energy mix to at least 30% by 2030, as the government pushes for renewables and pledges to move away from fossil fuels.
It comes as South Korea is moving away from an industry that was once the engine of the country’s economic development.
The harsh reality of global warming has forced the country to abandon the old recipe for success and explore a new energy mix to fuel its future growth.
Recent extreme flooding in its capital Seoul after the heaviest rainfall in more than 115 years has prompted many to rethink the country’s approach to climate change.
In Samcheok, in the province of Gangwon, once the mining capital of South Korea, a coal-fired power plant is accelerating the erosion of the famous Maengbang beach.
Environmentalists have said the power plant project could lead to the disappearance of the beach, made worse by the construction of a floating wharf to supply coal to the plant.
A government study in 2020 showed that the beach, which was already stressed by environmental factors without the plant, had been shrinking since 2005.
“The coastline moved inland. It got a lot narrower. It wasn’t cascading like stairs before. It was flat and there was sand all the way up there. But now , there’s this breakwater, and the ocean currents have changed. The landscape has been razed, it’s being razed by the ocean currents,” explained Sung Won-ki, professor emeritus at Kangwon University.
Professor Sung, from Samcheok, had staged protests against the factory since the government announced plans to build it in his hometown.
“The question is, why build a coal-fired power station next to Maengbang beach? This is a beach that should be designated as a nationally recognized natural monument, of which we only have a few. If a port is built there, the beach will be ruined, no matter how good the construction is, it will erode,” Professor Sung said.
Efforts to save Maengbang Beach drew international attention last year when South Korean band BTS chose the beach as a filming location for their megahit album “Butter”.
This has led to the beach attracting thousands more visitors than other beaches in Gangwon Province last summer.
Mining towns like Taebaek and Samcheok have started turning to renewable energy.
HYDROGEN COULD BE THE FUTURE
Among the solutions considered by the country to significantly offset the use of coal is hydrogen.
In the southeastern city of Ulsan, long known as a major shipbuilding and petrochemical center, a hydrogen-powered future is taking shape.
South Korea’s only two hydrogen-powered ships are in this industrial city and are capable of sailing for up to eight hours on a 40-minute charge.
Last year, the city – together with the Ministry of SMEs and Startups – launched a project to commercialize the two fuel cell vessels. The country’s first hydrogen charging station has been established for ships, a step up from hydrogen charging stations for vehicles.
Today, there are more than 2,400 fuel cell cars on the road in Samcheok City, with about 11 charging stations.
Users of these hydrogen cars said they were happy with the results, mainly due to lower costs, especially with the recent spike in gasoline prices due to the war in Ukraine.
“I drive a lot. Before, when I used gasoline, I used to spend about 500,000 to 600,000 won ($358 to $430). But now I think I spend less than 200,000 won ($143)” , said a hydrogen car user.
Taxi driver Cho Geum-yoon is also convinced that hydrogen is a more viable option. “It’s cheaper than LPG and works much further when fully charged. A full charge travels about 600 km. If I’m working 10 hours a day, I would need to recharge it once every two or three days,” did he declare.
South Korean industrial conglomerates like Hyundai Heavy Industries have also jumped on the hydrogen bandwagon to build fuel cells for ships.
“Moving towards a hydrogen society is the direction not only South Korea is taking but also the whole world is going,” said Kim Ki-doo, combustion performance specialist at Hyundai Heavy Industries.
“In line with the trend, South Korea is also making efforts, especially to advance the hydrogen society. Whether it is a hydrogen society or an ammonia society , we are preparing for the future,” he said.
However, a hydrogen-powered world remains an untested future for South Korea, as without coal the country will need other sources to meet its energy needs and carbon neutral ambition.
IS NUCLEAR ENERGY THE ANSWER?
One possible answer is nuclear energy.
However, nuclear has been a divisive issue among the public and politicians.
In 2017, former President Moon Jae-in pledged for a “nuclear-free era”, with plans to retire the country’s 24 nuclear reactors.
In stark contrast, current President Yoon Suk-yeol has embraced nuclear power as South Korea’s main source of electricity in a bid to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
One of Mr Yoon’s first stops with his ministers since taking office in May has been nuclear-related facilities. He said the government would inject nearly $100 million to expand the country’s nuclear solutions, including the construction of Shin Hanul 3 and 4 nuclear reactors.
It also plans to extend the life of 10 existing nuclear power plants beyond their scheduled closure in 2030.
In the coastal county of Uljin, where the Shin Hanul nuclear power plant is located about 330 km southeast of Seoul, many residents have also changed their minds about nuclear power.
Lee In-kyun, 73, remembers rallying other residents against nuclear reactors being built in the county in the 1970s.
“Residents from across the county blocked the road, and the youths even threatened to set the tanker on fire. The clash was extreme. Because we didn’t have a good understanding of nuclear power plants at the time,” said Mr. Lee, the community development officer of Uljin.
“Now the people of this region have learned first hand that nuclear power plants are kept, managed and operated safely.”
He said residents now believe the reactors will help the local economy, but are concerned about how spent nuclear waste is disposed of – a pressing and contentious issue in South Korea.
“We have good expectations for the rapid construction of the Shin Hanul 3 and 4 nuclear reactors. But the highly radioactive waste will be overloaded in 10 years and there will be no place to store it. What are we going to do in this topic? That’s what we’re concerned about,” Lee said.
WHERE DOES NUCLEAR WASTE GO?
Currently, spent nuclear fuel is temporarily stored in nuclear power plants. However, they will slowly reach their temporary storage capacity from 2031.
Jerng Dong-wook, a professor at Chung Ang University, said nuclear waste should be buried so the radiation it emits can be contained.
“Spent fuel has a very high level of radiation and it is very dangerous and risky, so we like to put it underground. If you put the spent fuel 500m underground, we can separate it from hazards with our biosphere,” explained Professor Jerng, who specializes in energy systems engineering.
A nuclear power plant, which houses a nuclear waste management facility for low-to-intermediate level radioactive waste near Bonggil village, Gyeongju city, is the only disposal facility for all nuclear waste in South Korea .
The facility, which began operations in 2015, receives, inspects and disposes of waste from factories, hospitals and nuclear power plants.
Disposed nuclear waste is stored in drums inside concrete storage containers, designed to hold the waste for 300 years. The containers are then lowered into one of the facility’s six secure silos – each around 24m in diameter.
“We put 16 drums in a concrete container. Then we transfer and dispose of each of them in the silos. The six silos in the underground tunnel can hold 100,000 drums,” said Cho Yoon-young, director of Korea Radioactive . Waste Agency.
The facility said about 25% of its capacity has been used and it will have the capacity to receive waste for another 60 years.
POLITICAL UNCERTAINTIES AFFECT THE ENERGY TRANSITION
As the debate over radioactive waste management continues, political uncertainties will continue to weigh on South Korea’s energy policy.
While Mr Yoon believes nuclear power plants are the solution to South Korea’s energy needs, under the country’s constitution he can only serve a strict five-year term.
His pro-nuclear policy could again be reversed by his successor when he leaves office, similar to his reversal of Mr Moon’s plans to phase out nuclear power.
Prof Jerng warned that investors could be cautious about pumping in money if politicians are not on the same page and change policy every term.
“If an energy policy changes every five years, no one would want to invest in the energy sectors. It’s a nightmare if the policy changes again five years later. It’s totally a nightmare,” said the Professor Jerry.