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(2nd LD) Energy minister checks safety of reactors in quake-hit city

2017/09/12 18:57

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(ATTN: UPDATES minister's comments, details in last four paras)

By Kim Eun-jung

GYEONGJU, South Korea, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Energy Minister on Tuesday checked the safety of nuclear reactors in Gyeongju to mark the first anniversary of the nation's largest recorded earthquake and vowed to step up anti-quake measures.

Paik Un-gyu visited Gyeongju, located 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul, to check an active fault line near the Wolsong No. 1 reactor and a nuclear waste disposal facility to check the safety in the quake-prone region. The epicenter of the 5.8 magnitude earthquake was not far from the nuclear facilities.

Paik Un-gyu, the chief of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, visits a fault line located near the epicenter of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Gyeongju in 2016 to mark the first anniversary of the nation's largest recorded quake on Sept. 12, 2017, in this photo provided by the ministry. (Yonhap) Paik Un-gyu, the chief of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, visits a fault line located near the epicenter of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Gyeongju in 2016 to mark the first anniversary of the nation's largest recorded quake on Sept. 12, 2017, in this photo provided by the ministry. (Yonhap)

Safety concerns remain as over 600 aftershocks have taken place over the past year in the historic city, which houses six nuclear reactors and related facilities.

Experts have warned that recent earthquakes in nearby Japan could have destabilized the fault line in the Korean Peninsula, further raising anxiety among residents following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

"Natural disasters like earthquakes could lead to grave disasters because the country's nuclear reactors are located near populous regions," Paik said. "The government will put the priority on the safety of people with strengthened anti-quake measures and shift the focus to safe and renewable energy resources."

   To better predict seismic activities, the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, a state geological research institute, said it has been inspecting fault lines in the southeastern region to complete the process by 2021 and expand the study across the nation by 2041.

The policymaker said the government will come up with a comprehensive plan for its new energy policy by the end of this year, which will include a nuclear phase-out road map and investment plans for renewable resources.

The latest move was in line with President Moon Jae-in's pledge to scrap all existing plans for new nuclear reactors and cancel lifetime extensions for aged reactors to reduce reliance on nuclear power.

South Korea operates 24 reactors to supply about one-third of its electricity, making it the world's fifth-largest user of nuclear power.

As follow-up measures, a state commission was launched in July to collect public consensus on whether to continue to build new reactors on the country's southeast, temporarily halting construction of two new reactors in Ulsan, located 414 kilometers south of Seoul.

In a meeting with local residents and civic groups, Paik said the government will gather public opinions about the early closure of the Wolsong No. 1 reactor, stressing transparency of the process to push forward the plan.

The country's second-oldest nuclear reactor was shut in 2012 after 30 years of operation, and its life span was extended by another 10 years in 2015.

"As an early closure of the Wolsong No. 1 reactor is currently under discussion, we ask for cooperation from local residents to push the plan forward without delay," Paik said.

The minister also said the government will communicate with local residents on the building of an interim low- to medium-level nuclear waste storage facility since Wolsong is expected to run out of space by early 2020.

The decision to build a nuclear disposal facility is thought to be imminent, but past attempts to build it have faced backlash from residents over safety concerns.

"Building new nuclear power plants and extending the life span of aged reactors without resolving these problems is handing over tasks lasting 100,000 years to the next generation," Paik said, stressing the need to phase out nuclear power eventually.

"Nuclear power is not a cheap energy source when taking into consideration its social, environmental and risk costs. If more eco-friendly, cheaper energy sources are developed, that's the way the government should go. If it does not take this step, it is committing a crime to the people."

   ejkim@yna.co.kr

(END)

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