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     May 17, 2012

Seoul resists nuclear shutdown pressure
By Steven Borowiec

SEOUL - On May 5, Japan shut down the last of its 55 nuclear reactors to go nuclear free. Fallout from the March 2011 Fukushima disaster turned Japanese public opinion so strongly against nuclear power that the Tokyo was forced to abandon an energy source once as seen the perfect solution to Japan's scarcity of resources.

Two days after Japan's last reactor was shutdown, next-door in South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak was presiding over an groundbreaking ceremony for two new reactors at the Uljin Nuclear Power Plant. Though last week media revealed that a reactor at the complex faces a two-year shut-down for safety reasons, two new 1,400-megawatt reactors are still scheduled to be built there by 2018.

When it comes to nuclear power, South Korea is moving in the


opposite direction as Japan, in spite of a similar turn in popular opinion. It's significant that while the Fukushima crisis was unfolding, Lee was in the United Arab Emirates signing a major deal whereby South Korean firms would build nuclear facilities in the country.

Uljin encapsulates the current state of nuclear power generation in South Korea: as the country builds new facilities, a number of existing facilities aren't making the grade and a sizeable segment of the population is resisting planned expansion. Domestic resistance gained momentum after the Fukushima disaster and is accelerating amid a series of reported malfunctions and misdeeds within South Korea's nuclear power establishment.

Uljin isn't the only problem area. A reactor at Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant in Gyeongju, south Gyeongsang province, was recently shut down to avoid overheating after a component failure. The incident came just six months after it was restarted following more than two years of maintenance. The reactor's design life runs out in November, but the government has no plans to shut it down- they are seeking permission to extend its life by an additional 10 years.

The Korea Federation of Environmental Movements issued a statement saying, "Until this accident, the Wolseong No 1 reactor has recorded 51 malfunctions over 30 years due to flaws in machinery and components, including radiation leaks, coolant leaks, and reactor shutdowns."

The nearby Gori plant was shut down in April due to a power failure. A scandal came about one month later after plant officials attempted to cover up the real reason for the shutdown. There is now an investigation being conducted into allegations that officials at that same plant took bribes from local suppliers.

As of now, six officials from the Korean Hydro Nuclear Power Company have been arrested on charges of accepting bribes from parts suppliers in return for accepting used and outdated parts for power plants. The investigation is still ongoing and more arrests could be made.

Approximately 4.04 million South Koreans live within 30 kilometers of a nuclear plant, which after Pakistan and Taiwan is the world's largest such population proximity. The Gori and Wolseong plants are located in an area of high population density, which has contributed to anxiety over their safety.

Nuclear plants account for 29.5% of South Korea's total electrical generation capacity, but supplies 45% of total electrical consumption.

Greenpeace activists have held demonstrations at Uljin and other plants in South Korea. During one, activists used a high-powered laser to shine an image onto the Gori plant that called for its closure. The government apparently didn't appreciate the attention: three members of Greenpeace were denied entry to South Korea at Incheon International Airport on April 2.

"Our deportation is a wake-up call for the people of South Korea of what they can expect if their country expands its already unhealthy reliance on nuclear power and allows this kind of crackdown to continue," said deported activist Mario Damato in a Greenpeace statement.

At the same time that there's a potential nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula that has nothing to do with anyone surnamed Kim, South Korea is trying hard to build its reputation as a nuclear facility exporter. It has keen interest in markets in the Middle East, China and India. Demand for nuclear power could grow in the medium-term future.

Over the next 20 years, many of the world's nuclear reactors will reach the end of their life spans, meaning there will be great demand for replacement reactors. This surge will be coupled with demand for new reactors in China and India, as those countries look for ways to meet rising energy demand.

South Korea currently has 21 commercial reactors and has plans to have 11 new ones up and running by 2022. In July 2011, South Korea and India signed a deal to share nuclear technology. India is planning to set up some 30 reactors over as many years and get a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy by 2050.

The public is concerned about safety and public opinion is largely against deepened reliance on nuclear power. In response to the unfavorable public sentiment, South Korean president Lee took a page from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's book and declared that his country had no alternative to nuclear power. He said at the May 4 ceremony at Uljin that atomic power is "not an option but a must" for energy-strapped South Korea.

He also argued that if nuclear power was done away with, South Koreans would have to pay for more for energy. At present, energy prices in South Korea are some of the lowest in the world and nuclear power accounts for about 31% of electricity produced. There is no denying that densely populated countries without a wealth of natural resources, like South Korea and Japan, have energy needs that demand sacrifices. If plants are closed, that energy will have to come from somewhere and prices could rise.

With the hot summer approaching, air conditioning units will strain power grids. If more South Korean nuclear plants are shut down, the strain could surpass manageable levels. If the country's nuclear plants don't run smoothly, or even if they do, it's likely to be a long, hot summer in South Korea.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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