Posted : 2012-03-19 17:12
Updated : 2012-03-19 17:12

Fukushima around us

Nuclear power industry needs drastic overhaul

Throughout the past year, the government and state utility officials have said what happened in Fukushima, Japan, could never occur here. First, they said, Korea is free from big earthquakes and tsunamis, and second, the nation’s nuclear power plants are armed with double ― even triple ― safety systems.

One new report after another show they may be right about the former, but are dead wrong on the latter.

The news about the 12-minute power blackout at Gori No.1 Power Plant in northern Busan in early February and its month-long cover-up sent shivers down the spines of most Koreans last week. More surprisingly, follow-up reports say the controversial power station operated for nearly 10 days without any backup systems, as the emergency diesel generator broke down again after a couple of days, which few knew about.

Worse yet, they also failed initially to set in motion the third fallback device ― a hand generator ― either because it was also broken or they had no experience running it, or both. What a perfect triple safety system!

Together these reports tell Fukushima is never a neighboring country’s story. The only difference is while the Japanese disaster was the combination of natural disaster and human error, it is possible that a Korean version would be completely man-made, making it much more shameful and inexcusable.

And all these mistakes were made by officials who must know the single biggest factor in the Japanese calamity was a power blackout, and human error was behind the world’s two most infamous radioactive disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And unlike what the government and state utility, Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO), say, private experts note the nation’s nuclear power industry has problems in nearly every aspect ― facilities, personnel, organization and supervision.

So a reconstruction of the latest incident goes: The policymakers adhered to prolonging the operation of worn-out plants without paying due attention to accessory facilities; an inexperienced engineer at a subcontractor firm mishandled devices; officials at the power plant agreed to cover it up either to avoid punishment or social controversy especially at a time when the government is busy preparing for the Nuclear Security Summit; and safety regulators and officials at the state utility and related government ministries failed to perform their surveillance duty throughout the process.

One of the reasons for this safety fiasco is the nation’s power supply system monopolized by a state company. Korea needs a far better supervisor over KEPCO, much as the once accident-prone flag carrier, Korean Air, changed itself by inviting foreign safety supervisors.

And at the root of the shaky, dangerous safety system is the utter lack of safety consciousness on the part of the central government, which tries to limit the radius of evacuation in an emergency. It must waste no time activating a special interagency committee to check all of the nation’s 42 nuclear plants to find out any similar problems to Gori No. 1.

Seoul had better restart with the old Korean saying: “Manage yourself and your family first before helping to stabilize the world.”
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