Lessons Learned from 1995: South Koreans stop plan for nuclear waste dump on Gulup Island

Dianuke is once again publishing a relevant article from the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a resource developed and maintained by Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA. Readers can find other articles on the same theme by searching on the database with the keyword “nuclear,” or find the numerous articles on other aspects the history of nonviolent protest.

Throughout the world there are a few relatively well-known and well-researched nuclear waste dilemmas, with names such as Mayak, Hanford and Sellafield, but this article about an obscure protest movement in South Korea underscores the fact that the legacy of the nuclear era has impacted thousands of large and small communities throughout the world. In the future, many more will be unprepared when they too are invited to “host” nuclear waste repositories. Many of the past struggles go unreported in languages that reach a global audience, but in this case the researcher, Leah Grady Sayvetz, made one of the smaller struggles against a nuclear waste proposal available to the wider world.

Republished here under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

south korea-anti-nulcear protest-2011

South Korean mothers stage an anti-nuclear energy rally to protect their children from radioactive exposure in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 19, 2011.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Koreans stop plan for nuclear waste dump on Gulup Island, 1994-95

by Leah Grady Sayvetz, April 4, 2012

Time Period:  22 December, 1994 to 30 November, 1995

Country: South Korea

Location City/State/Province: Gulup Island

Location Description: 1.7 Sq. mile island off the West Coast of South Korea

View Location on Map

Goals: To stop the building of a nuclear waste dumping site on Gulup Island.

In the 1980’s and 90’s South Korea’s nuclear industry was growing, and the Korean environmental and anti-nuclear movement grew along with it. During the 1980’s, over fifty percent of the country’s electricity came from nuclear power, so that by the end of the decade, storage of the radioactive waste posed a formidable challenge as on-site storage facilities began to reach capacity. As the problem increased for the industry, the anti-nuclear sentiment gained momentum: in 1989 twenty-one environmental and social movement organizations came together to form the National Headquarters for Nuclear Power Eradication.

A series of attempted nuclear waste storage facility projects never came to fruition due to popular resistance. The government made their first proposal for waste storage sites in 1986, and by 1994 four different proposals involving twelve different location options had met too much resistance to proceed.

By the end of 1994 the government thought it finally had a fail-proof proposal: Gulup Island, a mere 1.7 square miles and located off South Korea’s western coast. Only ten families lived there, so any resistance shown by the residents could hardly constitute a real obstacle. Although the government claimed in its announcement on December 22, 1994, that the residents of Gulup Island agreed to relocate for a monetary compensation, environmental groups questioned whether any real agreement existed. The government also decided to use Gulup as a waste storage dump without holding any public hearings or getting input from the larger public on the issue beforehand.

As soon as the public found out about the Gulup Island plans, environmental groups took up the cause and rallied support for the islanders. The Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM), Korea’s largest environmental organization, took the lead in a campaign to stop the Gulup Island project. KFEM had over 13,000 members at that time and worked with numerous smaller grassroots environmental and social movement groups to advocate for the residents of Gulup, who soon made it clear that they did not want a nuclear waste dump site located on their island.

Clearly, too, the proposed waste site would affect communities anywhere close to Gulup, like on Dukjok Island nearby and the large city of Incheon on the mainland. Elders on the island of Dukjok feared for the impact that a large nuclear facility would have on their traditional way of life. Island fisherman expressed concern for their business as sales began to drop off because customers questioned possible radioactive contamination of fish. Also, residents in the resort business worried that the nuclear waste dump would deter tourists from visiting the beautiful islands as they usually did each summer. KFEM and broader public involvement amplified these islanders’ voices against the Gulup island waste dumpsite proposal.

Representatives from environmental groups spoke at public hearings that the government eventually held, but the meetings represented more of a formality than anything. The opponents understood that if the government really cared about their opinions they would have held hearings prior to announcing the choice of Gulup Island.

The opposition took matters into its own hands and commissioned a geological survey of the island. The survey found a capable fault under the site, meaning that the possibility existed for sudden slipping of rock layers, which produce an earthquake. They used this as a driving point for the campaign against locating a nuclear facility on Gulup and called for a local referendum on the issue. In the spring of 1995, over 300 residents of Dukjok Island staged a protest outside of the Ministry of Science and Technology building in Seoul. A large force of riot police met them but did not arrest anyone. Police did arrest many protesters in other protests over the issue, however, in Incheon and Seoul, and organizers reported several injuries from police violence. The residents of Gulup Island also took an active stand and refused to move from their homes, stating that no monetary reward could ever persuade them to leave.

All of these efforts put enough pressure on the government that they finally gave in to having a geological survey done of the site. The South Korean government invited experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to perform its own geological survey. In October 1995, the government had to admit to the presence of a capable fault underneath the island of Gulup and abandon yet again its proposal for building a nuclear waste storage site. On November 30, 1995 South Korea announced the official conclusion of pursuing Gulup Island as a dumping site.

Published originally on Global Nonviolent Action Database: A project of Swarthmore College, including Peace and Conflict Studies, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Copyright Swarthmore College. Republished here under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


This campaign was influenced by a very strong anti-nuclear movement in South Korea during this period.


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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:

Leah Grady Sayvetz 04/04/2012

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