CNA Correspondent: South Korea’s energy dilemma
For decades, coal powered South Korea’s economic miracle. Today, as the country pushes for renewables and pledges to move away from fossil fuels, what will fuel South Korea's future growth?
SEOUL: For nearly a century, coal miners in the northern mountainous city of Taebaek have taken countless trips through dark and dusty tunnels deep underground to extract heavy chunks of coal to power the country.
The coal briquettes extracted in Taebaek’s mines are used mainly by South Korea’s low-income households as a main energy source, and at barbecue restaurants.
The Taebaek Jangseong Coal Mine, which employs about 660 workers, is one of the last three coal mines operated by state-owned Korea Coal Corp.
However, the mine, opened around 1936 when Korea was under Japanese rule, is scheduled to close in 2024.
Although fossil fuels have powered South Korea’s economic miracle, propelling its rise as a technological powerhouse, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said it plans to reduce reliance on coal, and completely phase out coal mining by 2025.
Coal currently fuels about 40 per cent 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 per cent by 2030, as the government pushes for renewables and pledges to move away from fossil fuels.
This comes as South Korea shifts away from an industry that once drove the country’s economic development.
The harsh reality of global warming has forced the country to leave the old recipe for success behind and explore a new mix of energy to fuel its future growth.
The 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.
WEAR ON THE ENVIRONMENT
In Samcheok, Gangwon province, once the mining capital of South Korea, a coal-fired thermal plant is speeding up the erosion of the city's famed Maengbang Beach.
Environmentalists said that the power plant project could cause the beach to eventually disappear, made worse by the construction of a floating dock designed to supply coal to the plant.
A government study in 2020 showed the beach, which was already under stress from environmental factors without the plant, had been shrinking since 2005.
"The coastline has been moving inwards. It has become much narrower. It wasn't cascading like stairs before. It was flat and there was sand all the way up there. But now there is this breakwater and the ocean currents have changed. The landscape has been shaved off. It's being shaved off by the ocean currents,” explained Sung Won-ki, an emeritus professor at Kangwon University.
Prof Sung, a Samcheok native, had been holding protests against the plant ever since the government announced its building plans in his hometown.
"The question is: why build a coal-fired power plant next to Maengbang Beach? It is a beach that should be designated as a nationally recognised natural monument, 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," said Prof Sung.
Efforts to save Maengbang Beach gained international attention last year when South Korean boyband BTS chose the beach as the photoshoot location for their megahit “Butter” album.
This led to the beach attracting thousands more visitors compared to other beaches in Gangwon province last summer.
Coal mining cities like Taebaek and Samcheok have started to shift towards renewable energy.
HYDROGEN COULD BE THE FUTURE
Among the solutions the country is looking at to significantly offset the use of coal is hydrogen power.
In the southeastern city of Ulsan – long known as a major shipbuilding and petrochemical hub – a hydrogen-powered future is taking shape.
South Korea’s only two hydrogen-fueled vessels are in this industrial city, and are capable of sailing up to eight hours on a 40-minute charge.
Last year, the city – together with the Ministry of SMEs and Startups – set sail on a project to commercialise the two fuel cell-powered ships. The country’s first hydrogen charging station was established for the vessels, in a step forward 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-powered cars said they are happy with the results, mainly because of lower costs, especially with recent soaring gas prices due to the war in Ukraine.
"I drive around a lot. Before when I used gas I would spend about 500,000 to 600,000 won (US$358-$430). But now I think I spend less than 200,000 won (US$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 runs much further when it’s fully charged. One full charge runs like 600km. If I work 10 hours a day, I would need to recharge it once every two or three days," he said.
South Korea’s 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 pursued by not only South Korea but also the whole world,” said Kim Ki-doo, a 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's 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 demands and carbon neutrality ambition.
IS NUCLEAR POWER THE ANSWER?
One possible answer is nuclear power.
However, nuclear has been a divisive topic among the public and politicians alike.
Former president Moon Jae-in in 2017 vowed 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 energy as South Korea’s main source of electricity in a push to meet net zero emissions goal by 2050.
One of Mr Yoon’s first stops with his ministers since taking office in May was nuclear-related facilities. He said the government will pump nearly US$100 million to expand the country’s nuclear solutions, including the construction of the Shin Hanul 3 and 4 nuclear reactors.
He also plans to extend the lifespan of 10 existing nuclear power stations beyond their scheduled closure in 2030.
In the coastal county of Uljin, where the Shin Hanul Nuclear Power Plant is located about 330km southeast of Seoul, many residents have also changed their minds about nuclear power.
Lee In-kyun, 73, recalled rallying other residents against nuclear reactors being built in the county in the 1970s.
"Residents from the entire county blocked the road, and the young people even threatened to burn down the oil tanker. The clash was extreme. Because we didn't have a good understanding of nuclear power plants back then,” said Mr Lee, the head of Uljin Community Development.
“Now the people in this area have learned for ourselves that nuclear power plants are kept, managed, and operated safely."
He said that residents now believe having the reactors will help the local economy, but is concerned about how the spent nuclear waste is being disposed of – an urgent and controversial issue in South Korea.
"We have good expectations for the early construction of Shin Hanul 3 and 4 nuclear reactors. But high-level radioactive waste will become overfilled 10 years from now, and there will be no place to store it. What are we going to do about this? That is what we are concerned about,” said Mr Lee.
WHERE DOES NUCLEAR WASTE GO?
Currently, spent nuclear fuel is temporarily stored at the nuclear power plants. However, they will slowly reach their temporary storage capacity starting from 2031.
Chung Ang University Professor Jerng Dong-wook said nuclear waste should go underground so that the radiation it emits can be contained.
"Spent fuel has a very high level of radiation and it’s very dangerous and risky so we like to put it underground. If you put the spent fuel 500m underground, we can separate it from dangers with our biosphere,” explained Prof Jerng, who specialises in energy systems engineering.
A nuclear power plant, which houses a nuclear waste facility for low- to medium-level radioactive waste near Bonggil village, Gyeongju city, is South Korea’s only disposal facility for all nuclear waste.
The facility, which started operations in 2015, receives, inspects, and disposes waste from factories, hospitals, and nuclear power plants.
Disposed nuclear waste is stored in drums within concrete disposal containers, designed to keep the waste for 300 years. The containers are then lowered into one of six secured silos - each with a diameter of about 24m – in the facility.
"We put 16 drums into one concrete container. Then, we transfer and dispose of each one of them in the silos. The six silos in the underground tunnel can take in 100,000 drums,” said Cho Yoon-young, director of the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency.
The facility said that about 25 per cent of its capacity has been used, and it will have the capability to take in waste for another 60 years.
POLITICAL UNCERTAINTIES AFFECT ENERGY TRANSITION
As the debate over radioactive waste management goes on, political uncertainties will continue to plague 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 power policy could again be overturned 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 may be cautious to pump in money if politicians are not on the same page and switch policies every term.
"If an energy policy changes every five years, then nobody would like to invest in energy sectors. It’s a nightmare if the policy changes again five years later. It’s totally a nightmare,” said Prof Jerng.