Kori Nuclear Power Plants in Gijang, Busan ― Recent findings make many worry about safety of nuclear power plants in the country. / Yonhap
Korea's aging nuclear power plants are causing many safety concerns. Now, Koreans have more reasons to worry.
Last Thursday, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission said it fined Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), the operator of 23 nuclear reactors around the nation, 740 million won ($642,534) for performing incorrect in-service inspections. According to the government monitoring body of nuclear power facilities, the mishandled inspections ― on control rod actuator housing welding ― were carried out at 16 reactors for more than 30 years. The commission said the errors were possible because the inspection manual was drafted incorrectly in 1982 by a builder and inspectors relied on the manual without crosschecking.
Additionally, the commission found last week that the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), based in Daejeon, disposed of nuclear waste from in its labs on its property, which is illegal. Nuclear waste disposal is strictly regulated, with even low-level waste such as gloves and clothes being required to be isolated from other waste.
According to the commission, KAERI buried radioactive concrete waste and dirt on its property in Gongneung-dong in Daejeon ― some was even transported and buried in Geumsan, South Chungcheon Province, 28 kilometers south of Daejeon. Almost 2.8 million people live within 30 kilometers of the Daejeon institute.
It also dumped gloves and vinyl in trash bins as regular waste ― some of which was incinerated ― and released wastewater into the city's sewage system.
The team of investigators retrieved the concrete waste from Geumsan in January which is currently stored on KAERI property. According to the commission, the amount of concrete is estimated at 2.15 tons. For other items, no accurate estimate was available.
The monitoring body said the investigation began last November triggered by a whistleblower's complaint and the illegal practice dates back to 2011.
Radioactive nuclear waste poses a hazard to health and the environment. A court in Busan ruled in 2014 that the Kori Nuclear Power Plant was responsible for thyroid cancer commonly found in a group of people living near the plant.
Green Party Korea issued a statement criticizing KAERI's actions.
"This is an action jeopardizing the health and safety of people who live nearby," the party said in a press release. The anti-nuclear energy party that runs a committee dedicated to opposing nuclear power also urged prosecutors to look into the issue. "Fining isn't enough," it said.
The party also criticized the monitoring body for failing to prevent the misconduct. "Some in the commission are former employees of KAERI. It's hard to expect them to police KAERI properly. They need to invite local residents to participate in monitoring."
Korea has the highest nuclear power plant density in the world, and last week's revelations seemed to prove public concerns are legitimate.
One common worry is prolonged operation of the plants beyond their designed lifespan. Earlier last week, the Seoul Administrative Court ordered a halt in operations of the Wolseong-1 reactor in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, which was supposed to be shut down in 2012 but was restarted after a certified operations extension in 2015.