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Social peripheries and the siting of nuclear facilities in South Korea and Japan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jinyoung Park ‒ Ph.D. student in Environmental and Energy Law, School of Law, Seoul National University

In July 2017, there was an interesting event in South Korea. The government asked a citizens panel to consider whether or not the partially-built Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors should be completed. Since it was settled to complete the construction, many researchers tried to analyze why people, even local residents who live near the plant, supported the project. This article aims to answer that question.

The paper focuses on the unique siting patterns of nuclear-related facilities in South Korea, and compares it with the situation in Japan. In both nations, most nuclear facilities have concentrated in a few locations including several considered here – Ulju and Gyeongju in Korea, and Futaba and Rokkasho in Japan.

In theoretical perspective, this study started with the concept of 'social peripheralisation', which is suggested by Andrew Blowers and Peter Leroy (1994). They investigated several LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Use) facilities in Europe, and concluded that these types of facilities tend to be located in marginal regions in various aspects. Earlier studies also linked the siting of such facilities to social marginalisation (see Blauner, 1972). Blowers and Leroy focused on the process and characteristics of conflicts, how local regions and members of the community reacted to the siting of each facility, and identified five aspects of peripheralisation: economic marginality; geographic remoteness; environmental degradedness; cultural defensiveness; and political powerlessness.

Ulju: Kori and Shin Kori nuclear complex

Ulju in the south-eastern area of South Korea has three nuclear power plants (Shin Kori-4/5/6). When combined with the adjacent Gijang region (Kori-2/3/4 and Shin Kori-1/2/3), it is one of the largest nuclear complexes in the world.

A noteworthy point in this region is that Ulju accepted three plants because of Gijang. This is explained by then-governor, Jin-gu Park: "KEPCO plans to build four reactors in Hyoam region in Gijang. As you might know, Hyoam is close to our boundary. Thus, it might be regarded that the specific location is not the matter of issue in the aspect of safety, but when it comes to the compensation, it can bring distinctive differences. Thus, I considered that it seems better to invite the facility to our region on economic grounds." (Ulsan Local Council, 1999)

It illustrates that Ulju already shared a certain level of risk from nuclear plants in Gijang, and accepting nuclear plants in Ulju would bring a massive economic benefit. For instance, in its long-term development strategy by Ulju Development Institute (2014) identifies neighboring regions, such as Gijang and Gyeongju, not only as partners but also rivals for development. Considering the above points, it seems that Ulju is highly affected by its faith in economic development and the existing risk of nuclear energy.

At the same time, the government played a crucial role encouraging the acceptance of nuclear power reactors. In South Korea, there are several laws that require the government and utilities to financially support the place that hosts the electricity generating plant. According this rule, Ulju KHNP (Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power) announced the payment ‒ solely for the siting of Shin Kori 3 ‒ of ₩31.5 billion (US$28.0 million) in acquisition tax, ₩2.4 billion (US$2.1 million) in special tax for rural development, and ₩1.4 billion (US$1.24 million) in local education tax to Ulju district (Yonhap News, 2016).

In fact, there was aggressive opposition by people in Ulju when the government tried to build Shin Kori 3 there. However, KHNP completely ignored local opposition. And local politicians also regard the nuclear project as an 'inevitable task' from the perspective of local politics; therefore, even the local government could not easily oppose the plan.

When we returned to the recent situation of Ulju, people formed a tight alliance to protect the Shin Kori reactors from the President's policy to review whether or not construction should be completed. The background to this turn-around is evident in a comment by Lee san-dae, one of the local residents: "Whilst local people intensively opposed the siting of Shin-Kori 3 and 4 reactors, opposition faded. Over time, it was acknowledged that we cannot make any changes in the case of Shin-Kori 5 and 6 plants, and people decided to cooperate with the siting." (Lee, 2017).

Gyeongju: low and intermediate level radioactive waste

Gyeongju lies in the north-east corner of the Korean Peninsula, and is well known as the capital of the Shill dynasty for nearly a century. From this historical background, it is also called the treasure house of historical and cultural assets in Korea. In this sense, the regional economy in Gyeongju relies highly on the tourism industry and related service sector (the tertiary sector accounts for 51% of all employment).

To manage these historical sites, the government set strict regulations about urban development and planning, such as altitude and structure limitation of buildings. However, these so-called 'Culture belt' regulations have been a stringent obstacle for regional development and urban planning for Gyeongju (Jang, 2005). These circumstances are a cause of deep resentment towards the national government for people in Gyeongju, and resulted in the aspiration for self-reliance and local development (Choi, 2007).

Additionally, as Gyeongju constantly failed to win national projects (for example, a Taekwondo park and racecourse in 2005), they came to argue that this was regional discrimination compared to neighboring regions, such as Busan, Pohang and Ulsan, which are major hubs of industrialization. Put differently, Gyeongju shows similarities to Ulju in its faith for economic development and competition with neighboring regions.

Moreover, Gyeongju has already hosted six nuclear plants (Wolsung 1-4 and Shin Wolsung 1 and 2) since 1983. The plants significantly contributed to the region's growth, not only creating economic supports but also hiring approximately 10% of their workforce in the region. These points seem to have contributed to people's positive perceptions about hosting a repository for low and intermediate level radioactive waste.

Cho (2007), however, criticized the process, describing how peripheral communities tend to lose their identities and set their development strategy into inviting so-called NIMBY and LULU facilities. From this perspective, backward communities reinforce their marginality as a consequence of efforts to overcome their powerlessness through the siting of nuclear-related facilities.

In Gyeongju, the radioactive waste repository has been built and the nuclear industry has become a major channel for regional development rather than tourism and related industries. As an example, Gyeongju and Gyeongsanbuk-do plan to show the city as the core of the nuclear cluster while accumulating further facilities, such as research institutes.

Futaba: Fukushima nuclear reactors

Prior to the Fukushima accident, there were six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and four reactors at Fukushima Daini. Fukushima is said to be the core of Genpatsu Ginza, translated as Nuclear Plaza; it was one of the largest nuclear clusters in the world.

The nuclear plant in Fukushima was invited in an unexpected way. A member of the House of Councilors from Fukushima constituency, Kimura tried to utilize Futaba's idle lands for the nuclear energy business, and discussed it with Sato Kiichi (then governor of Fukushima prefecture) and Kigawada Kazutaka, a Fukushima-native then vice-president of TEPCO (Fukushima Minpo, 2011).

Another noteworthy pillar can be regional poverty in the Futaba area. Although local people subsisted on the agriculture and fishery industries, Dekasegi (going to other cities for work) was the daily routine for members of the village, especially in the winter (NHK, 2013). The public briefing by TEPCO promoted a local nuclear plant as 'free from Dekasegi'.

At the start of construction, the stimulation of the regional economy seemed enough to give local residents the impression that 'Fukushima is becoming the city'. In fact, according to Three Power Source Development Laws, Okuma town marked significant growth in the 1970s with the benefits from the nuclear facilities. The situation in Futaba town was similar. Fixed asset tax for Futaba town in 1982 reached approximately ¥1.9 billion, which was nearly half the total revenue. In addition, in terms of TEPCO in Futaba town, it created almost one-third of regional employment, including outsourcing firms, according to calculations by Shimizu (2004). Furthermore, the construction industry and service sectors (such as restaurants, cleaning services and barber shops) that targeted workers in the nuclear industry expanded across the region

However, the nuclear-focused regional economy could not last for long. Under the structure of the Three Power Laws, in order to secure tax revenue, the region had to prove their demand, which means they were required to invest more budgets to acquire more taxation. In spite of constant attempts, they could not reduce the pace of collapse of the nuclear-reliant regional economy, especially in Futaba town.

This extremely vulnerable structure of the regional economy drove Futaba town to rely on additional calls for nuclear facilities (Tohoku Politics and Economics, 1997). In September 1991, Futaba local council unanimously passed a bill to invite further nuclear power plants. These were to be the 7th and 8th reactors at Fukushima Daiichi; however, the plan did not materialize due to the disaster. Concerning these phenomena, Sato Eisaku, governor of Fukushima from 1988 to 2006, likened it to 'drug addiction' (Sato, 2011).

Moreover, nuclear energy was not only embedded in the local community, it also restructured the community. Kainuma (2011) argues that local people tend to see minor and individual risks as 'inevitable', and consequently negative opinion cannot be expressed in the society. These mindsets help them live in their hometown with their family and neighbors. In essence, it can be said that local residents rebuilt their lifestyles, and reached a position that self-justified their co-existence with nuclear power facilities. This pattern seems critical to understanding the background of the powerful nuclear regime and myth of nuclear safety in Japan ‒ the myth that was one of the drivers of Fukushima accident.

Consequently, it seems noteworthy that Fukushima invited the nuclear reactors to their community to combat poverty; but it caused the antithetical situation that reinforced addictiveness in the aspects of economic and cultural support.

Rokkasho village: nuclear fuel cycle facilities

Rokkasho village is located in the northeast peninsula, the so-called Shimokita-hantou (Shimokita peninsula) in Aomori prefecture, Japan. This project was triggered by the Mutsu-ogawara plan to build huge petrochemical and steelmaking plants. However, the first and second oil shocks resulted in a complete shift of the government's plans. This was an alarming event, not only for the national government but also for Aomori prefecture because the debts of the existing Mutsu-ogawara partners had risen from ¥82.7 billion to ¥130 billion (US$1.17 billion) since the plan was initiated, due to the non-disposal of land. Arguably, this financial circumstance strongly affected the invitation of the next development scheme ‒ nuclear fuel cycle facilities in the Rokkasho region.

However, the Chernobyl accident aroused people's attention to oppose the project. Thus, the nuclear fuel cycle became a core election issue. Despite aggressive demonstrations, the result was that the pro-nuclear candidate, Kitamura Masaya, who was supported by the utilities and the ruling party, was reappointed as a governor.

At present, Rokkasho village is one of the few regions that promote nuclear power, even after the Fukushima accident. The economic influences of the nuclear facility, particularly financial support and employment, might have encouraged local people to choose a nuclear-friendly candidate (Itoh, 2016). Rokkasho village has been the richest region in Japan. Also in Rokkasho village, nearly 10% of local people work at JNFL.

According to Funabashi (2012), although economic benefits from the nuclear fuel cycle have accelerated local acceptance, there remains local concern and questions about the facility. It has been shown that 61% of people in Rokkasho village said they wished the nuclear fuel cycle could be scaled down if they could ensure employment in alternative ways. Whilst people seem to be positive regarding nuclear facilities due to the economic and employment benefits, there is an underlying uncertainty and fear.

Conclusion: toward sustainable nuclear transition

Governments and firms promise large economic incentives to win support for nuclear projects. Marginal communities ‒ hollowed, aged communities and those which already host similar facilities ‒ tend to accept the trade-off between financial support and safety risks. Also, once they accept nuclear facilities, those facilities shape their surrounding region and pro-nuclear sentiment tends to grow as dependence sets in. Thus nuclear facilities in South Korea and Japan are generally found in concentrated clusters. As Andrew Blowers emphasizes, social peripheralisation is not a one-time phenomenon, it constantly exacerbates their marginality.

South Korea and Japan have both pledged to reduce their reliance on nuclear power and the processes of peripheralisation and marginalisation will shape the unfolding energy transition.

This article is based on a longer article: Jinyoung Park & Benjamin K. Sovacool, 2018, 'The contested politics of the Asian atom: peripheralisation and nuclear power in South Korea and Japan', Environmental Politics, 27:4, 686-711,


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