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(News Focus) S. Korea's oldest reactor faces shutdown over safety woes

2015/06/12 17:41

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) - South Korea's oldest nuclear reactor may fail in its second bid for a life extension in the face of strong opposition as people have learned an important lesson from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis: Anything can happen at any time.

The Kori-1 reactor was built in the southeastern port city of Busan in 1977 to provide much-needed energy as the nation's economy was growing at an unprecedented speed boosted by export-driven policy.

Having served its intended life span of 30 years as a clean, efficient energy source alternative to fossil fuels, the 587-megawatt light water reactor in 2007 received the go-ahead for another decade of commercial operation.

The Kori-1 reactor, South Korea's oldest nuclear reactor built in the southeastern port city of Busan in 1977, faces a permanent shutdown when its operational license expires in 2017. (Yonhap photo file) The Kori-1 reactor, South Korea's oldest nuclear reactor built in the southeastern port city of Busan in 1977, faces a permanent shutdown when its operational license expires in 2017. (Yonhap photo file)

With two years left before the deadline, the state-run nuclear operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) has prepared to continue running it for another decade, but it may instead have to prepare for the nation's first-ever permanent shutdown.

On Friday, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy held an energy commission meeting to recommend the KHNP not extend its operational license, citing negative public opinion and alternative power supplies for electricity production, which accounts for a mere 0.5 percent of the total.

If the KHNP doesn't submit an application for extension by the July 18 deadline, it will have to close down the Kori reactor by June 2017.

The government's latest decision reflects a heightened level of safety concerns among residents after they saw a Japanese nuclear plant meltdown in the wake of a devastating tsunami in March 2011, the worst since Russia's Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Four years have passed, but the impact is far from being over and the affected villages will remain a no-go zone for inhabitants for an unpredictably long time.

The accident has served as a vivid reminder of the importance of guaranteeing the safety of both existing nuclear power plants and those yet to be built in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

South Korea currently runs 23 reactors to produce about a third of its electricity needs and is already building or has plans to build another 11 units.

The KHNP says the 30-year operational license guarantees the minimum period the aged reactor can operate, and through a series of refurbishments and overhauls, the facility is safe for continued use. Nuclear industry officials say using the existing facility is more economical than building a new one, which costs a lot and can be delayed by several years due to strong opposition from residents and tougher regulations.

Having the Kori No. 1 just 25 kilometers north of the famous Haeundae Beach is certainly not reassuring residents in Busan, the nation's second-largest city with a population of 3.5 million.

A coalition of 59 civic and environmental groups in Busan has held demonstrations in protest of the proposed extension over the past weeks, vowing to continue massive rallies in Busan and Seoul to block the move.

"The Kori No. 1's credibility and security have come to an irreparable level and we have already completed its economic feasibility," the coalition said during a rally in front of the National Assembly on Tuesday. "The government should decide to shut down the reactor for public safety."

   Politicians, from both the conservative and liberal parties, stepped up pressure on the government.

On Tuesday, a group of 13 Saenuri Party lawmakers whose constituencies are based in Busan, including party chairman Kim Moo-sung, held a meeting with Energy Minister Yoon Sang-jick to urge the government to shut down the aged nuclear reactor as scheduled.

Rep. Ha Tae-kyung said public distrust of KHNP runs deep in his constituency, which houses the nuclear complex, following a series of corruption scandals involving its officials, noting government-issued safety reports won't be enough to calm residents' opposition. Also, dismantling the reactor will offer new opportunities to develop the decommissioning industry, he said.

"Advancing in the global competition for the decommissioning industry also serves the national interest," Ha said. "We should take full advantage of using Kori No. 1 as a test bed for decommissioning technology development."

   The number of reactors that have been dismantled or are expected to retire amounts to 149 in 19 nations as of end-2013, according to the International Energy Agency. Among them, 12.8 percent have completed the process, with 15 in the United States, three in Germany and one in Japan.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance Party (NPAD) addressed lingering safety concerns over the aged reactor, calling for the government to step up efforts to develop more sustainable energy sources.

"The government should systematically phase out nuclear reactors and shift its policy towards sustainable energy that can serve as new economic drivers, including renewable energy, advanced power system and energy storage system," NPAD's special nuclear energy committee said.

South Korea's energy policy is now stuck between a public that is against nuclear power, and the energy industry that wants a continued role for nuclear power at home and an expanded presence in the global market. It exported its first nuclear reactor to the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

On Monday, the energy ministry said it has nixed plans to build four coal-fired power plants and will build two more nuclear reactors to have a total of 36 by 2029 as part of broader efforts to cut carbon emissions.

The ministry said the country's overall use of electricity is expected to increase by an annual average of 2.2 percent over the next 15 years, while environmental groups argued that the government inflated the estimated power consumption growth for the purpose of building additional nuclear reactors.

Experts say the government should take steps to establish a legal framework and develop nuclear decommissioning technology under a long-term plan as more countries plan to phase out aged nuclear power plants.

"It is hard to assess the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants, and even with the help of foreign technology and expertise, it would need a huge budget," said Park Jong-un, a nuclear energy professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "The government should step up efforts to learn nuclear decommissioning technology and foster experts in the industry."

   ejkim@yna.co.kr

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