Lee’s condolences: President Lee Myung-bak, center, pays his condolences to Japanese victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at a memorial altar set up in the Japanese Embassy, central Seoul, Friday. Japanese Ambassador Masatoshi Muto, right, also acknowledges the victims, along with Cheong Wa Dae officials. / Yonhap
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Amid the nuclear crisis in Japan, the reliability and safety of made-in-Korea nuclear reactors have become President Lee Myung-bak’s buzzwords this week.
Lee emphasized Friday again that nuclear reactors here were safe and credible, noting that the nation’s nuclear energy technology is highly advanced.
This is the third time that the business leader-turned-President tried to show such high confidence of local reactors this week alone, following his first positive comments made during his trip to the United Arab Emirates Monday.
Analysts say his overemphasis of the safety of Korean nuclear reactors comes against the backdrop of the global nuclear energy market showing signs of waning after radiation leakage worries spread in Japan.
The alleged caution creeping into the nuclear energy industry remains a fear factor for South Korea as it set the ambitious goal of taking up to 20 percent of the global market in the forthcoming years by exporting its nuclear technology.
During a meeting with Cabinet ministers Friday, Lee was quoted as saying that “the local nuclear industry made outstanding progress, reactors are safe, and nuclear scientists have done a great job in operating them.”
Lee, however, directed Cabinet ministers to double-check the safety of reactors here and to review procedures to prevent nuclear accidents.
The meeting was set up to look into the government’s responses to the worst earthquake and monster tsunami to hit Japan. Ministers of foreign affairs and trade, finance and strategy, and agriculture participated in the meeting. Also joining the call were several nuclear scientists and experts in the nuclear energy industry.
Lee ordered the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to carry out regular training to prepare for possible nuclear accidents. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
Trade was urged to work with foreign governments in case they need assistance in nuclear accidents.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to carry out safety checks on nine reactors that have been operated for 20 years or more. Twenty-one reactors are operating in the country, providing approximately 40 percent of electricity demand.
Presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung told reporters that the participants didn’t touch upon the possible impact of the Japan earthquake on the nuclear energy industry.
Lee repeated the positive assessment of the safety of local nuclear reactors a day after he made similar remarks at a meeting with Rep. Ahn Sang-soo, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, Thursday.
On Monday, the President gave the thumbs up on made-in-Korea nuclear reactors during his trip to the UAE, remarking that when it comes to safety and efficiency, the Korean model is “unrivaled.”
Lee stepped up efforts to promote Korea brand reactors at a time when the times are pretty tough after the nuclear crisis in Japan.
Being influenced by public anxiety over the safety of nuclear reactors, several governments have begun to rethink their plan to seek nuclear energy.
German Prime Minister Angela Merkel said Wednesday that her government would shut down its seven oldest nuclear reactors during a three-month safety review. Germany also plans to suspend a lifespan extension for the plants.
Switzerland, where four nuclear reactors are operating, took a similar measure this week. Energy Minister Doris Leuthard has suspended the approval process for three nuclear reactors to revisit safety standards.
The Chinese government Wednesday ordered safety inspections of its nuclear facilities and suspended approval for the plan to construct new nuclear reactors temporarily.
Industry experts said a decline in the nuclear energy industry will be unavoidable as governments invariably come to rethink their strategy or suspend the operation of reactors.