Author: Deokhwa Hong (Assistant Professor, Chungbuk National University)
* This is a brief summary of his Ph.D dissertation (2016) titled "The Formation and Transformation of the Nuclear Industry in Korea: Focusing on the Industrial Structure and the Modes of Regulation of the Nuclear Power Plant Sociotechnical Regime, 1967-2010."
This study analyzes the formative and transformative processes of the South Korean nuclear industry from the perspective of the sociotechnical regime. Through doing so, this paper seeks to elucidate the reality of South Korean society’s nuclear power plant (NPP) dependence insofar as it is a product of the structure of a public business group-based NPP industry and of inclusive modes of regulation. Arguments commonly used to advocate the construction of NPPs such the comparative economic strengths, the continued increase in demand for electric power, and the need to bolster energy security overlook the fact that the economic feasibility of NPPs and the demand for electrical power and energy security are in themselves outcomes of society and its institutions. Approaches from the existing theory of technological innovation, which consider technological catch-up to be the driving force behind the rational long-term plans of the developmental state and of electric power companies, disregard the effects of conflicts which exist in government ministries and subordinate organs that carry out the planning and development of nuclear weapons and the NPP industry.
Studies from critical perspectives define the government and electric power companies only as the so-called “NPP mafia,” which disseminate dangerous technology without societal consent, failing to take note of internal diversity. Regardless of their perspectives on NPPs, existing studies commonly pay little attention to the conflict inherent in a state, as it is an institutional complex within the dichotomous framework of success myths and unjust alliances.
Consequently, cases of failure like policy failure, for example, which have arisen due to poor judgment or external pressure; or cases of policy drift, caused by internal conflict, have been treated as secondary issues and NPP history has been described in selective manner. In addition, technological catch-up, institutional change, and social movements have been analyzed individually without consideration for the co-productive nature of society and technology. To overcome the limitations of existing research, the present study focuses on the contentions between the research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and electric power supply sectors, on the backdrop of the developmental state’s multifaceted NPP promotion strategy. In addition, it tracks the effect of conflicts and compromises between the state and the anti-nuclear movement with regards to both technological development and institutional changes. The following is a summary of those results.
The structure of the public business group-based NPP industry was a product not of governmental planning but of governmental failure. The oil shock, the military security crisis, and the South Korean government’s policy for the establishment and fostering of the heavy-chemical industry in the early 1970s propelled the government’s multifaceted NPP promotion strategy. However, this indefinite strategy triggered competition for leadership over the NPP industry among the R&D, manufacturing, and electric power supply sectors, and clear institutional and technological lines could not be established. The situation was resolved only after the R&D sector faced the crisis of its possible demise and the manufacturing sector lost the ability to sustain itself. Because of its involvement in the development of nuclear weapons, the R&D sector could not avoid American monitoring and pressure. Ultimately, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) faced the crisis of organizational merging or being abolished, and it became difficult for the R&D sector to take charge of the NPP industry on top of its other responsibilities. The manufacturing industry, into which large private corporations had entered competitively, faced inevitable restructuring due to reckless investment into infrastructure. It became impossible to resuscitate the manufacturing industry without government support, and Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) came to serve as the government’s source of funding. Consequently, Korea Heavy Industries & Construction Co., Ltd. (KHIC), a manufacturer, was reorganized as a subsidiary of KEPCO, and the NPP industry was vertically integrated, with electric power companies at the center.
Though it was unintended, the NPP sociotechnical regime began to stabilize with the formation of the public business group in the electricity sector. With its integration into the public business group-based electric power sector, KEPCO had to take care of the volume of work and management to normalize KHIC’s operations. On the other hand, KAERI established a parallel research-business model, thus preparing a stepping stone for its recovery. This led to an opportunity for the technological self-reliance paradigm to transform into a NPP standardization and localization plan. At first, the electric power supply sector was lukewarm about the standardization and localization of NPPs. Following the integration of the manufacturing and R&D sectors into the public business group of electricity, however, there was now more incentive to be active. As roles related to the implementation of the NPP standardization and localization plan were divided out among the R&D, manufacturing, and electric power supply sectors, it became possible to establish a path towards a nuclear power administrative system and nuclear power technology.
The NPP sociotechnical regime began to feel the pressure of new developments during the latter half of the 1980s. The issue of excess NPP facilities was raised due to the limited demand for electric power. The South Korean government and KEPCO transformed the crisis of excess facilities into an opportunity to create demand for electric power. Thanks to consecutive reductions to electricity rates, South Korean society turned into a “society of cheap electricity consumption.” The spread of “developmental publicness,” where public enterprises provide public goods at low prices with strong social opposition to price increases or, in other words, the internalization of externalized costs, led to the basis of social support for NPPs becoming even more secure. On the other hand, due to the rise of the anti-nuclear movement after democratization (1987), it became difficult for the South Korean government to implement NPP policies one-sidedly. However, the anti-nuclear movement’s influence decreased with the deterioration of its structure for political opportunity. Nor was the movement able to respond meaningfully to South Korea’s transition into being a society of cheap electricity consumption. In the end, the anti-nuclear movement proceeded in a sporadic but explosive form, with a focus on grassroots movements. Consequently, due to the nature of playing technological catch-up, the politics of managing matters adjacent to nuclear power, including administrative and industrial structure reorganization and radioactive waste management, proceeded in the form of bureaucratic negotiations. However, because of the conflicting goals of the R&D and electric power supply sectors, pertinent policies became stuck in limbo for an extended period of time. The chance to end policy drift coincided with the failure to select radioactive waste disposal facility sites. Consecutive failures in selecting waste disposal sites weakened the R&D sector’s veto power and provided the opportunity to deal with drifting policies on a large scale. Through this, the electric power supply sector was able to strengthen their role and domination within the NPP sociotechnical regime. The R&D sector received nuclear power R&D funds as compensation for relinquishing the parallel research-business model, thus creating the foundation for them to freely pursue non-commercial research.
However, elements threatening the stability of the NPP sociotechnical regime had yet to be eradicated. Following the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-98), the South Korean government sought to dissolve the public business group in electricity as part of a restructuring of public enterprises. However, the electricity public business group was able to avoid the crisis of dissolution because of broad social support for developmental publicness. Instead, the NPP industry, which had been previously integrated in a hierarchy, began to be restructured into a network. Despite this, radioactive waste disposal facility sites still repeatedly failed to be selected because of opposition from locals. The South Korean government’s newly conceived response was to introduce participatory systems as a means of dividing and managing the anti-nuclear movement. But, again due to conflict among supporters and opponents between hard-liners and the soft-liners, these participatory systems led not to division and domination but to policy drift. Policy drift was ended only after hard-liners took the lead once again and changed the participatory systems into competitive votes between/within diverse regions accompanied with economic compensations. The NPP sociotechnical regime could restabilize only through the subsumption of the anti-nuclear movement, and, through that, NPPs’ comparative economic advantages were not threatened. However, the restabilization of the NPP sociotechnical regime led to new problems such as the electrification of energy sources and the densification of NPP facilities.
The implications of the results of this study are as follow. First, it is difficult to understand the formative process of South Korea’s industrial infrastructure without taking into consideration the institutional complexity of the developmental state. If a rationality for the planning of quasi-pilot agencies exists, it is the result of conflict and coordination between the interests of not only government agencies and subordinate organs but also large private corporations. Consequently, the starting point for understanding the industrial infrastructure is not the plan’s rationality but the politics of coordination. In addition, the implementation of plans through public enterprises has created broad social support for developmental publicness. Even in a situation where the institutional basis of the developmental state has weakened because of the process of neoliberalization and democratization, developmental publicness has provided the basis for the continuation of developmentalism in industrial infrastructure. Therefore, “the politics of sustainability” in the infrastructure industry have been reduced to industrial policies for market creation and technological catch-up instead of creating inroads for socioecological transition through the reconstruction of the sociotechnical regime.
Keywords: Nuclear industry, Nuclear power plant, sociotechnical regime, developmental state, public business group, developmental publicness, anti-nuclear movement, infrastructure