Public Opinion on Spent Nuclear Fuel: Lessons from South Korea

A longstanding, unresolved problem for nuclear energy in the United States is how to manage spent nuclear fuel discharged from power reactors. Two issues are the crux of the problem: 1) assuring that a geologic repository will protect people and the environment from exposure to radioactive spent nuclear fuel over very long periods of time; and 2) obtaining the consent of impacted communities, tribal groups and states to construct a geologic repository and to transport spent nuclear fuel to the repository for disposal.

A new article by Jungmin Kang, Seoc-Woo Kim, and Byong-Chul Lee titled "Hot potato in South Korea: The spent nuclear fuel storage dilemma" holds lessons for the United States on the issue of public consent to store spent nuclear fuel.

Like for the United States, a South Korean government plan rolled out decades ago to site a geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel failed: "mainly because of opposition from communities near potential repository sites." Consequently both in the United States and in South Korea, tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel are stored at nuclear power plants where the spent fuel was originally discharged from the nuclear reactor cores -an unacceptable and unstable situation.

The politics of spent nuclear fuel disposal in South Korea also involves concerns about the nuclear weapons of North Korea, and concerns about the potential for Japan to build nuclear weapons using its stockpile of plutonium reprocessed from its spent nuclear fuel. This dimension to the spent nuclear fuel problem in South Korea is a reminder that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel brings with it the danger of nuclear proliferation, and that the United States develops and promotes reprocessing technology at its peril.

To investigate public opinion on spent nuclear fuel storage in South Korea, the authors of this article surveyed residents near nuclear power plant sites, provided information to the residents about nuclear spent fuel storage, and tried to measure the impact of this information on the residents' opinions. The authors conclude:

"Educational information provided by experts independent of the government seems to be an effective way to impart understanding of the spent fuel storage situation and the options for creating safe and secure repositories. Truly independent experts could increase the level of intelligent science based discourse at the local level and make the national spent fuel management debate more rational."

In the United States, proponents of the Yucca Mountain repository are seeking new political opportunities to promote this troubled project, and private corporations are looking to profit from interim consolidated storage of spent nuclear fuel. Being lost in the current U.S. politics is the lesson from South Korea on the need for public education and rational debate on spent nuclear fuel management. To this end, on Friday May 15, 2015 NRDC Senior Attorney Geoffrey Fettus will be testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a hearing titled "Update on the Current Status of Nuclear Waste Management Policy."