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Nuclear waste dumpsite issue in South Korea

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(February 21, 2003) While the world's media have focused on North Korea re-starting an old nuclear reactor, and allegations that nuclear waste is being reprocessed to make nuclear weapons, South Korea came a step further to deciding where to site a dump for nuclear waste.

(583.5492) KFEM - On 4 February, just after the Lunar New Year's day celebrations, the South Korean government's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy (MOCIE) announced the four candidates for the nuclear waste dumpsite. The candidates are Yonggwang and Gochang in South Jeola Province, and Ulchin and Youngduk in North Kyungsang Province. Among these candidates two will be selected, one in each of the above provinces, as the final locations for the nuclear dumpsites in March, 2004. And to our surprise, the government's plan includes a dumpsite for irradiated fuel.

All previous attempts by the government to select a location for the nuclear waste dumpsite ended in failure after strong opposition from the residents and activists. The most recent try was Gulup Island (1). But after about 1 year's strong opposition, the attempt ended in failure as an active fault was found in that area (2). Through these struggles, Korean movement against nuclear waste dumpsite grew into a movement against nuclear power itself. And now Korean activists are demanding that the government change its energy policy from nuclear into renewable resources.

Korea has 18 nuclear power plants now: 6 in Yonggwang , 4 in Ulchin, 4 in Wolsong near Kyungju city, 4 in Kori near Busan city (total: 15,720MW). These nuclear power plants are producing 40% of the total electric power now. And the government is planning to increase this rate upward to 50% in 2030 by building more nuclear reactors. According to the plan, the sites will then have 12, 10, 8, and 6 reactors operating at the same time.

The announcement on 4 February shows the government's will to increase nuclear power generation. To obtain people's approval, the government has said that temporary storage houses for middle and low-level nuclear waste in each nuclear power plants would be filled up in 2008. And the government has threatened that if dumpsites are not built now, we would suffer an energy crisis. But the government itself admitted that as we have the technology to decrease the volume of the waste, dumpsites are not so urgent. The reason the government announced the sites so hurriedly is that they wanted to utilize the political power vacuum before the new President is inaugurated at the end of February.

Korea has so much potential wind power and solar energy. As for solar energy, the amount of solar radiation per unit area is 3 times that of Germany. But the government has no time to develop these energy resources, as it is busy advertising how nuclear power is clean, economical and safe. More than 10 billion Korean Won (US$8 million) a year is used in advertising nuclear. So Korean environmental groups are expecting that the fight against the plan to build the nuclear waste dumpsite will be the turning point in changing the energy policy of Korea.

Since the government announced the sites on 4 February, the local people's fight against nuclear has become stronger and stronger. Won-Buddhism, a Korea-oriented religion, joined the fight. Though Won-Buddhism started the fight to preserve their sacred ground (Yonggwang) from the nuclear waste, now they are saying that they will fight until nuclear is gone from the world because they realized through the fight how nuclear is threatening life and peace. About 16,000 residents in Yonggwang and Ulchin held a rally on 12 and 13 February to demonstrate against the government's announcement in each site. Especially the residents in Ulchin are highly enraged, as the government had promised not to build a dumpsite in Ulchin in 1994, 1999, and 2000 according to official papers. In case of Youngduk, the government canceled a nuclear waste dumpsite in 1989. The residents in Gochang and Youngduk are preparing a rally in the near future.

While nuclear power has fallen out of fashion in most of the world, it is still regarded as a clean and safe form of energy in Asia, especially in Korea. For example, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company (KHNPC), a subsidiary of Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO), is building nuclear power plants with foreign debt guaranteed by the government. (Of the US$60 billion of foreign debt that brought about the 1997 IMF crisis in South Korea, US$20 billion was for KEPCO.) KEPCO has encouraged Koreans to consume as much electric power as 5,600kwh per capita. According to their plan we "have to" spend 8,500kwh per capita in 2015.

They even hope to export nuclear power plants to Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Romania. In short, South Korea is playing a role as a bridgehead for world multinational nuclear capital to Asia, and the plan to build a nuclear waste dumpsite is related to this.

[Translated from Korean by Yongchang Jang, then edited by WISE Amsterdam]


  1. Also known as Kurop - see WISE News Communique 432.4263, "Kurop: Condemnation of an island"
  2. See WISE News Communique 445.4414, "Disposal at Kurop island axed"

Source and contact: Won-young YangYi, Korean Federation for Environmental Movement 251 Nuhadong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
Tel: +82 2-735-7000 Fax: +82 2-730-1240
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