The 2023 Nuclear Free Asia Forum in South Korea: The tip of the iceberg

By Pinar Demircan original published in Yesil Gazete

The Nuclear Free Asia Forum, which was founded in 1993 by anti-nuclear activists in Japan with the slogan "Let's build a nuclear-free and nuclear-weapon-free Asia at peace" and held its first event in South Korea to support the resistance against nuclear power plants, was held again in South Korea on its 30th anniversary after a four-year break due to the pandemic.

The Forum, which has been carrying out its activities for decades with the mission of sharing knowledge and experience among anti-nuclear struggles in Asian countries, as well as standing in solidarity for resistance when necessary, held its 20th meeting on September 19-23 with the participation of invited anti-nuclear civil society members from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Australia, and Turkiye.

The six-day program, which started with the Forum members presenting current country reports and exchanging information, included visits to cities such as Seoul-Busan-Ulsan-Gyeongju-Uljin, where nuclear power plants are located, and Samchaek, where the anti-nuclear struggle succeeded in preventing the nuclear power plant project. These visits provided information on nuclear processes and brought actors of anti-nuclear struggles together. In addition, panels on energy policies, democracy and the anti-nuclear movement were organized with Forum members as speakers.

As the Forum was marked by the start of the dumping of Fukushima's radioactive water into the ocean in September, press statements were held in city centers.

On the last day of the program, September 23rd, the participants participated in the Climate Justice March in Seoul, emphasizing that nuclear power plants are not a solution to the climate crisis, but rather a source of new problems.

According to the program I have outlined above, I will try to share an evaluation of this year's Nuclear Free Asia Forum. However, I would like to make visible the state of nuclear victimization, which I characterize as the "tip of the iceberg" for the proponents of nuclear energy to use South Korea as an example. For this purpose, I will mention about the conditions affecting the anti-nuclear struggle in a country that was convinced to build nuclear power plants by referring to the revised energy policy in the country.

With an area equivalent to one-seventh of Turkey's and a population equivalent to half of Turkey's, S. Korea is a country dependent on fossil fuels, and the share of nuclear technology in its industrialization is emphasized. Its 25 operating nuclear power plants account for 26 percent of its installed electricity capacity have certainly played a role in its development. But an important example of how energy production is shaped by political preferences is visible within the shift from the planned nuclear phase-out under the left-wing Moon Jae-in government to its reversal in 2022 under the right-wing Yoon Suk Yeol government. In other words, while a nuclear phase-out is possible through the closure of outdated nuclear power plants accompanied by a transition to renewable energies, as it was in Germany, the new government's priority is to increase nuclear's share of the energy production pie to 30 percent by 2030.

After the wind in South Korea's energy policy turned in favor of nuclear, the cooperation between the state-owned Korea Hydro-Nuclear Power (KHNP) and the nuclear lobby has resulted in two reactors under construction as well as an appetite for SMR in the nationwide. Plus, following the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant consortium, which started operations in the United Arab Emirates in 2017, it would not be wrong to say that the company has been active abroad with a tendency to grab a share in overseas projects.

Although the construction of the first nuclear power plants in South Korea started in the late '70s with the Kori 1 reactor with a lifespan of 30 years, most of the nuclear power plants became operational in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s.

Since then, the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in Japan in 2011 has slowed down the pace of nuclear power plant projects due to the rising anti-nuclear sentiment.

The proximity of the nuclear power plants in Busan-Ulsan-Gyeongju and Uljin to urban centers and the risks such as the difficulty of emergency evacuation in the event of an accident played a role in raising concerns.

In Gyeongsangbuk province in particular, the main reasons are that the nuclear power plants in Busan and Ulsan, two under construction and one temporarily closed, each with five reactors located on both sides of the river where cooling water is supplied, are only 25 kilometers from the city center where 3.8 million people live. The presence of the 6-reactor Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant in Uljin, 30 kilometers from this region, also supports concerns.

In addition, I would also say that the post-Fukushima tests in South Korea, where seismicity is low, and the understanding that seismic risk was ignored in the construction of nuclear power plants close to urban centers and the 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Gyeungju in 2016 were effective in creating fear.

Not only the risks are ignored in S. Korea. One of the issues under the iceberg that I pointed out in the title of this article is the threat to the environment and public health posed by the leaks that occurred in 2019 at the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant which has heavy water reactors containing 10 times more than the normal amount of tritium, as well as the micro-cracks detected in the reactor. The lawsuits filed by civil society forces against the Wolseong nuclear power plant over nine years, which included legal grievances, failed to ensure the relocation of the plant...

However, the results of a study conducted by the Ministry of Environment on those living around the plant confirmed that human health deteriorates in proportion to the physical proximity to the nuclear power plant.

In other words, the nuclear power plant is not the only cause of the deterioration in health conditions, but the state is also telling those whose health is deteriorating to "move your house" while resorting to escape routes.

News of leaks and cracks at nuclear power plants in South Korea has also damaged the country's fisheries.

Fishermen petitioned to change the name of the plant after sales of Yonggwang Gulbi (yellow corvina), a fish from the sea bass family that is considered indispensable for traditional Korean dishes, plummeted due to reports of leaks and cracks at the nuclear power plant.

The renaming of the reactors of the six-reactor Yonggwang Nuclear Power Plant in South Jeolla province to "Hanbit" in 2013 by the KHNP as the fifth largest nuclear power plant in the world shows that the government and the KHNP, who say "you are to leave" to those who live at risk of losing their health, do not have the same attitude towards fishermen or fish. Same year, the name of the six-reactor Uljin Nuclear Power Plant was changed to "Hanul" because of the negative image it had on crab sales, which had become a trademark of the city. The reactors of the same plant, which are under construction at this date and scheduled to start operation from 2022 to 2032, are called "Shin", meaning "new", and the old and new reactors are called Hanul, which seems to provide the necessary change in perception.

Samchaek, our last stop on the program, is a city where the anti-nuclear resistance has succeeded.

The struggle of the groups that have been resisting the establishment of a nuclear power plant since the 1970s has increased its impact by gaining the support of the local administration after 2000 when the project was brought back to the agenda. However, the presence of a thermal power plant in the city is a sign that different dynamics are at play. Nevertheless, having listened to the struggle in Samchaek from the actors of the movement, I cannot help but wish that the projects in Mersin and Sinop will be canceled like the Samchaek project by leaving our anti-nuclear pennants on the monument stone of the success .

In countries with nuclear power plants, the most intense anti-nuclear struggle is undoubtedly the process of selecting a site for the storage of nuclear waste.

In countries where the institutions of democracy are relatively functioning, participatory processes are also taken into account in the selection of the nuclear waste site. Despite 37 years of government initiatives and advocacy for nuclear power plants in South Korea, the country does not have a final waste site like other nuclear technology countries around the world. Among the developments that strengthened social opposition, it can be said that the media coverage of the news that a fire in a nuclear waste repository in 2016 would expose more than half of the country's surface area to radioactive contamination and require the evacuation of 24.3 million people, half of the total population, would be prominent.

The approval given at the end of August for the dumping of radioactive water from Fukushima into the sea has escalated the reaction against Japan's action in South Korea, which is 1,000 kilometers away from this region by sea.

The 70 percent opposition enables anti-nuclear rhetoric to hold press statements in the busiest area of the city. despite the presence of a pro-nuclear which also supports the governent in Japan.

On the other hand, it is not possible for a Japanese citizen in South Korea to describe this situation without confronting past sensitivities. As a matter of fact, Daisuke Sato, founder of the Nuclear Free Asia Forum from Japan, who spoke at the event of the "Don't Nuke the Climate" network within the scope of the Climate March attended by 30 thousand people, first said:

"In Japan, we could not prevent this radioactive water from pouring into the sea. Japan has invaded and colonized Asian countries, but now it is doing it with radiation. As a Japanese, I apologize to you and we will fight against the dumping of radioactive water into the ocean and Japan."

Since the discharge of Fukushima's radioactive water into the ocean is not independent of the reality of nuclear power plants, it can be said that it facilitated the channeling of the masses condemning Japan's decision to anti-nuclearism. While the reaction to Japan's decision increased participation, it would not be wrong to state that the Don't Nuke The Climate, dominated the March for Climate Justice.

As colorful performances was effective, ..

it was emphasized that nuclear power plants with their heavy costs and long construction times are far from providing the urgent solution to the climate crisis and they pave the way for radioactive disasters as they lead to catastrophes under conditions of the climate crisis.