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As South Korea moves to expand nuclear power, concerns grow among nearby residents

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Gyeongju — 74-year-old Hwang Boon-hee lives in a pink house by the sea, surrounded by a large garden and birds chirping, but she gets sad every time she looks at her home, which is just a short walk from the Wolsong Nuclear Power Plant.

“When I first came here in 1986, there was only one reactor. Now there are five of them,” said Hwang. “The worst thing is that I can’t sell the property if I want to move.”

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, is pushing for nuclear power to overtake coal as the main source of electricity to help meet the country’s climate goals and strengthen energy security. The government wants to increase the share of nuclear power in the country’s electricity system to 33% by 2030 from 27% currently.

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Seoul has also highlighted Europe’s energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special military operation”, as a wake-up call to strengthen domestic energy sources.

The government is proposing to build an additional six nuclear plants by 2036 in addition to 24 reactors in the country the size of the US state of Indiana, raising deep concerns among hundreds of Koreans who live in the world’s most populous nuclear power zone. power.

The 24 reactors, capable of producing 23,250 megawatts, are concentrated in four locations – with 5 to 7 reactors per site – and about 5 million people live within 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of the plants, according to 2019 data compiled by opposition lawmaker Ui Song Gon.

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Nuclear experts say South Korea’s cluster reactors pose no safety problems, but some residents are not convinced.

“Cows are not good. There have been miscarriages, who knows why,” said Kim Jin-sun, a 75-year-old livestock owner who lives near Woolsong.

“Even if I try to sell my house or rice field and go somewhere else, no one will buy.”

DEFICIT NATURAL RESOURCES

While many South Koreans support the expansion of nuclear power, a significant minority calls for reductions.

A June 28-30 Gallup Korea poll of 1,000 South Koreans found 39% supported expanding nuclear power, 30% wanted it to stay at current levels, and 18% called for reducing it.

According to 2020 data from the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks fifth in the world in terms of nuclear energy production, after the United States, China, France and Russia.

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Because the country has limited natural resources, experts say nuclear power is critical to keeping the country afloat and powering its world-leading manufacturing industry, which exports chips, cars, displays and batteries for electric vehicles.

“South Korea produces what other countries need, so it consumes a lot of energy relative to its population. But we cannot reduce our electricity consumption – if we reduce it, we will become poor,” said Chung Bum-jin, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyung Hee University.

Energy price fluctuations are less dependent on nuclear power, Chung said, because the price of uranium is less than 10% of the total cost of power generation, and nuclear fuel can be stored for years, unlike bulkier oil, gas or coal.

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LIKE BANANAS

Hwang, who claims she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer due to radioactive materials from the plant, has spent the past decade pushing for legislation to fund the relocation of nearby residents. For several years now, Hwang and many concerned residents who live near the reactors have held protests near the plants and met with lawmakers.

“Although trace amounts of the material may be found in the body or environment of residents due to the operation of the nuclear power plant, the claim that the amount of radioactive material found affects health is invalid,” said operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power.

It said the maximum amount of tritium found in urine samples from Wolsong residents between 2018 and 2020 was 0.00034 millisieverts, well below the limit for the general population and annual exposure much lower than natural radiation.

“The amount of radiation detected in Wolsong is equivalent to eating six bananas a year, which contain potassium,” said Jung Young-hoon, a professor of nuclear and quantum engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). (Reporting by Hongji Kim, Minwoo Park and Joyce Lee)

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