This month, South Korea announced a major reduction in its target for nuclear power generation, partly in response to domestic safety concerns. In an email interview, Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explained the role of nuclear energy in South Korea.
WPR: How important is nuclear within Korea’s current energy mix?
Miles Pomper: Nuclear power plays a major role in South Korea’s electricity generation, meeting about 30 percent of the country’s energy needs in 2012, and South Korea is one of the top five nuclear-power-generating countries. South Korea does not have significant domestic fossil fuel resources. The rapid development of inexpensive, government-subsidized nuclear power in South Korea during the past three decades has allowed the country to maintain its extraordinary economic growth, supplying electricity-hungry industries like shipbuilding, cars and steel without further boosting expensive fossil-fuel imports or carbon emissions. Nuclear energy also has an important psychological component for South Korean officials who vividly recall the country’s vulnerability to past oil shocks and see nuclear power as providing a means of greater energy security. Even with the contribution from nuclear power, fossil fuels make up one-third of all South Korea’s imports, in part because nuclear-generated electricity does not play a significant role in sectors such as transportation. And South Korea is one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, particularly on a per capita basis.