Frequent Problems Cloud Nuclear Power Plan
3 Incidents in 2 Months; Civic Group Cites Secrecy-First Policy as Point of Concern
By Kim Hyun-cheol
The government has decided to build more nuclear power plants in order to secure a greater percentage of the country's electricity needs from this energy source. But a recent series of ``incidents'' reported at current facilities has cast doubts on the industry's credibility, and the efficacy of the administration's energy plans.
The Gori plant in Busan, the country's oldest commercial nuclear power plant with four reactors, has had to suspend operations twice since last month. Its No. 2 reactor was shutdown last weekend because of technical problems, the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation (KHNPC) said Thursday.
The stoppage didn't result in any radioactivity leaks and the reactor's overall condition is fine, the state-run operator said. The reactor, installed in 1983, will resume operation this weekend. But the operator's assurances are seen as less than convincing against the backdrop of its history of problems.
Last month, operations were halted for two days after a false alarm in one of its turbines.
A similar incident occurred in another reactor earlier this month. The Wolseong 1 reactor in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, stopped working on Jan. 4 for two days due to a power supply problem.
The government claims there are no major glitches with any of the country's nuclear plants. In a recent report by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the average operational rate of the country's 20 commercial reactors reached 93.4 percent last year, up from 90.3 percent in 2007. The figure is higher than those posted by the world's top two nuclear energy users, the United States and France.
Korea is heavily dependent on nuclear power. Reactors supply about 40 percent of the country's electricity, in stark contrast to a 15.7 percent average worldwide.
Korean reactors were reported to have experienced 14 mechanical problems last year, down from 20 the previous year and the lowest since 2004, when the country added its 20th nuclear reactor, the report said. Gori reactors had five malfunctions in that period.
But, in light of the latest reported incidents, three in less than two months, concerned onlookers fear that nuclear energy planning is using a ``bulldozer approach'' ― without a public review over safety and efficiency.
At the center of the controversy is the oldest Gori plant.
In December 2007, the science ministry said it would re-open the Gori 1 reactor, which had been taken after reaching the end of its initial lifespan of 30 years. It was deemed to have met technical and safety standards in a series of paper and on-site inspections.
The Korean Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM), the country's leading environmental civic group, then requested disclosure of related reports, only to be turned down by the government.
``They pledged to give details before, but suddenly changed their mind and shut down all communications," said Yang-Yi Won-young, a KFEM official.
From the KHNPC's point of view, raising the operational rate is one of the most important issues. Since nuclear plant construction costs are greater than other energy facilities, the operator needs to maximize the output of existing reactors. Consequently, it would rather avoid disclosing operational details, which would impede full operations, according to the organization.
Nuclear plants appear to top the government's desired energy source list and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE) suggested building 12 more plants, added to the current 20, by 2022 in its latest energy supply plan. Currently, eight reactors are under construction ― or are set to be ― with the aim for them to be completed by 2016.
The ministry has also announced it will launch an open discussion on radioactive waste disposal as the key environmental issue of nuclear power generation.
It is Seoul's plan to promote the necessity of atomic power generation in line with its ``low carbon green growth'' industrial master plan.
``Public sentiment is turning more and more positive on nuclear energy,'' a ministry official said. ``More promotion will be conducted this year before selecting the venue for new high-level radioactive waste storage.''
Construction of a new low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste dump started in Gyeongju, near the Wolseong Plant, in November 2007. Selection of the site raised questions over its geological eligibility, but no information and reports were made public during the selection process.
The nuclear generation policies could lead to serious problems at any moment as long as the government continues to keep them secret, the KFEM says.
``They say all related reports should be kept confidential because they are part of national projects and under the professional realm. But technologies like nuclear engineering, considering their side effects, are different from others because they contain more social responsibility,'' Yang-Yi said.
``Social monitoring is necessary in the policies, and Seoul should learn from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It was not the lack of technology, but the secrecy of the then Soviet Union government that really made the accident a catastrophe.''