[VIEWPOINT]No time for nuclear NimbysThe situation has changed: there are now a few local autonomous governments that have applied to have a nuclear waste disposal center constructed in their administrative district. The deadline for the application was Aug. 31, and three cities and one county are vying for the honor of hosting the center: Gyeongju and Pohang cities in North Gyeongsang province, Gunsan city in North Jeolla province and Yeongdeok county in North Gyeongsang province. The public, as well as the plant employees, feel more at ease now that a national project that suffered setbacks for such a long time finally appears to be arriving at a solution.
If we look at things with a cool head, however, we can see that we have only taken a first step. A conflict still exists between experts who say that nuclear waste can be treated safely and anti-nuclear activists, who vociferously disagree. Conflict and confrontations among residents are also expected to occur in the process of voting on whether to invite the construction of the waste disposal facility. As some local residents of the areas that applied for the center begin to react to the decision by their local governments, it is worring to think that the application itself might provoke another conflict.
Nevertheless, the construction of nuclear waste disposal centers is unavoidable, because we have to cope with high oil prices that go over $70 a barrel and the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which restricts some forms of power production.
South Korea operates 20 nuclear power plants, having started to commercially manage its first nuclear power plant in Kori, South Gyeongsang province, in the early 1970s. The medium to low-level waste from these facilities has been stockpiled at storage facilities within the sites. The radioactive waste caused by the use of radioisotopes at hospitals, research centers and industrial sites is temporarily being stored at the Nuclear Environment Technology Institute. The problem is that the existing radioactive waste disposal facilities will start to overflow in 2008, beginning with the nuclear power plant in Uljin. We have no time to spare because, even if construction starts next year, it will be difficult to complete a new waste-treatment plant by 2008.
Atomic energy is the least expensive and most environmentally friendly form of energy. Radioisotopes from nuclear energy contribute greatly to the treatment of diseases. It is the responsibility of our generation to construct and manage nuclear waste disposal facilities that will take care of the waste from such processes.
Highly-developed countries such as France, Britain and Sweden do not make such a fuss as we do over the construction of nuclear power plants or waste disposal facilities. The governments of these countries inform the public of the situation related to the supply and demand of energy on a national level and give them clear facts about nuclear energy, and then guage public opinion. In turn, the people believe that the government’s policy has been undertaken transparently.
Japan, the only country to have suffered an atomic attack, has not only a disposal facility for medium to low-level nuclear waste, but also operates a uranium concentration factory, used-fuel reprocessing facilities and storage facilities for high-level wastes. We have a lot to learn from Japan, since we are still unable to find a construction site for a waste disposal facility.
We now have to approach the safe treatment of nuclear waste in a more cool-headed and rational manner. The most important thing is the active participation of the people, especially the residents around the construction site, and the consideration of the national interest. The government and those in charge of the project must make public precise information in the process of selecting the construction site, so the public can regain its confidence in government policy. They must help people understand the reality and make right decisions by leading an honest publicity campaign. Residents of surrounding areas where the facilities are to be established must get rid of the contradictory attitude of acknowledging the need for nuclear energy while saying “I don’t want a nuclear power plant or a nuclear waste disposal facility coming in near me.” As long as nuclear power plants are in operation, construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility is unavoidable. The longer the construction is delayed, the greater the damage to our people will be.
I want to express my gratitude to the local governments and their residents for the courage to apply for the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility in their area. At the same time, I sincerely hope that they stop fighting and try to find a point of agreement by emptying their minds and looking at the objective truth and evidence.
* The writer is the director of the 1st atomic energy department at the Korea Electric Plant Service and Engineering Co., Ltd.
by Kang Dong-hoon