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South Korea vows to move away from nuclear power

In a bid to fulfill his campaign pledge to abandon nuclear energy, South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in has said his government will ditch plans to build new nuclear reactors and instead embrace renewable sources.

Südkorea Atomkraftwerk Kori (picture-alliance/dpa/Kyodo)

South Korea's new leader Moon Jae-In vowed on Monday to jettison all plans to build new nuclear reactors as he seeks to steer Asia's fourth-largest economy clear of atomic power.     

Moon also declared that the government would not seek to extend the life of existing plants. The move marks a shift in the country's decades-long reliance on nuclear energy.

Read: Can South Korea's Moon usher in a new climate era?

Moon, who was swept to power with a landslide election win last month, campaigned on promises to phase out atomic energy and embrace what he says are safer and more environmentally-friendly power sources including solar and wind power.

The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011 in Japan, sparked by a tsunami which was itself the result of a powerful earthquake, triggered widespread public concern in neighboring South Korea over its own aged atomic plants.

Südkorea Vereidigung Präsident Moon Jae-in (Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in

'Unimaginable consequences'

"We will dump our atomic-centric power supply and open the door to the post-nuclear era," Moon said in a speech marking the decommissioning of the country's first nuclear reactor, the Kori-1.

"I will scrap all preparations to build new reactors currently underway and will not extend the lifespan of current reactors," he said.

Many reactors are located dangerously close to residential areas in the densely-populated nation, Moon said, warning of "unimaginable consequences" in case of a nuclear meltdown.

"South Korea is not safe from the risk of earthquake, and a nuclear accident caused by a quake can have such a devastating impact," he said.

South Korea currently operates 25 nuclear reactors, which generate about a third of the country's power supply. Many of them will see their lifespans expire between 2020 and 2030, with decisions on whether to extend some of their operations set to be made during Moon's 2017-2022 term.

South Korea is one of the few countries that have also exported its nuclear reactor technology. Former President Lee Myung-bak promoted nuclear energy as part of the country's clean energy strategy and helped local companies win billions of dollars worth of deals to build nuclear reactors abroad.

Also abandoning coal

But South Koreans' enthusiasm for nuclear energy quickly waned following the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns in neighboring Japan. In the following year, a fake parts scandal prompted an investigation and spread fear over the safety of nuclear plants.

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Recent earthquakes in southeastern South Korea also dented public support in the country that was long believed to be safe from earthquakes. The country is also searching for answers on how and where to permanently store spent nuclear fuel.

Moon on Monday also vowed to cut South Korea's reliance on coal. South Korea, which has the highest level of small air pollutant particles among OECD member nations, will shut 10 old coal power plants and stop building more coal power plants.

Experts say the shutdown of coal power plants could dramatically hike utility cost in a country where coal power generates about 40 percent of its entire power needs. But Greenpeace and other environmental groups welcomed Moon's announcement.

sri/tr (AP, AFP)

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