By Jane Chung
SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean government-organized committee is recommending Seoul resume the stalled construction of two nuclear reactors after an opinion survey found nearly 60 percent of respondents were in favor of building the power plants.
The two projects were halted in late June after the government said it would let South Koreans give their opinions on energy policy direction amid public concern over atomic safety. The suspension was one of President Moon Jae-in's key campaign pledges to allay public worry over nuclear power.
The suspension was also in line with the new government's plan to shift away from coal and nuclear power towards greater use of natural gas and renewables to generate electricity.
"Our final public opinion survey showed 59.5 percent of (responding) South Koreans chose to resume the construction," Kim Ji-hyung, chairman of the committee, told a news conference on Friday. Stability of power supply was cited as a prime reason for the choice in survey responses, the committee said.
"Our recommendation to the government is restarting construction," Kim said.
The committee conducted four rounds of surveys including phone interviews of 20,006 people, and public discussions involving some 470 citizens over the past three months.
The survey results had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent.
The two 1,400-megawatt (MW) reactors - Shin Kori No.5 and Shin Kori No.6 - were originally to be built by March 2021 and March 2022, respectively, in the southeastern city of Ulsan.
Completion dates for the two nuclear plants are now set for October 2021 and October 2022, according to state-run nuclear operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) website.
South Korea's presidential office said on Friday it respected the results of the public opinion survey and would pursue future steps without delay.
Shares of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) rose 5.6 percent following the announcement. KEPCO Engineering & Construction, which is in charge of the nuclear reactors' design, surged as much as 20 percent, and KEPCO Plant Service & Engineering gained as much as 10 percent.
LITTLE ROOM FOR GAS POWER
Building nuclear power stations takes years, sometimes decades, so the decision in favor of the two new reactors will not change South Korea's immediate fuel demand patterns.
But the surprise vote does impact the long-term outlook for the country's fuel consumption. The biggest impact will likely fall on imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), of which South Korea is the world's second-largest buyer.
Should the equivalent of 2,400 MW of natural gas-fired power generation be replaced by these two nuclear power stations that would reduce LNG's share of South Korea's power generation mix by about 12 percent.
But while the government will still pursue scaling back nuclear power overall, said Yoo Seung-Hoon, energy policy professor at Seoul National University of Science & Technology, "as these two reactors have a total capacity of 2.8 gigawatts, that will leave little room for gas-fired power plants."
(Reporting by Jane Chung; Additional reporting by Dahee Kim, Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)