Attracting nuke waste dump took fasting and head-shaving

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Attracting nuke waste dump took fasting and head-shaving


Nineteen years after first being proposed, Korea’s first long-term storage site for low-grade nuclear waste has finally found a home. After years of opposition by local communities, the government proposed lucrative investments and grants and held a residents’ referendum in four areas ― Gyeongju, Gunsan, Pohang and Yeongdeok ― which ended up vying for the “honor” to host the site. Following the Nov. 2 vote, the city of Gyeongju was declared the “winner” after 89.5 percent of eligible voters gave a thumbs up to the project. Mayor Baek Sang-sung, 70, is credited with persuading his constituents to give the go ahead.
“Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste [gloves, clothing, filters and X-ray materials] is much less dangerous than a nuclear power plant,” Mr. Baek said. “And Gyeongju already has nuclear reactors in nearby Wolseong.”
Mr. Baek explained in an interview that accepting a facility less dangerous than a nuclear power plant could revive the city.

Q. How do you feel?
A. Gyeongju has had a series of failures in hosting government projects such as a horse racing track and taekwondo park, and so I am very happy that the citizens voted for and won the project. It is a victory for the citizens.

There was criticism that a historic city like Gyeongju shouldn’t host the repository.
The city combines original Gyeongju and old Wolseong county. The repository will be built near Wolseong nuclear plant, which is more than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the city where most of the cultural relics are located, though there is the tomb of King Munmu and the site of Gameun Temple nearby.
What’s important is that half the country’s high-level radioactive waste (enriched uranium, for example) is stockpiled at the Wolseong plant. The law stipulates that high-level radioactive waste should be moved away from wherever a nuclear repository is built. Hosting the repository is a way to make the Wolseong plant and the historic city of Gyeongju safer.

What was the campaign’s biggest difficulty?
Persuading the people living in the three residential areas near the Wolseong nuclear plant. The residents claimed that Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, the operator of the plant, had not fulfilled its promise to solve problems such as the drying up of Daejong stream and the discharge of hot water. They did not trust the authorities with regard to the nuclear waste repository project. Ninety percent of them objected to it, and Gyeongju fell behind Gunsan in bidding for the project. I went there four times to persuade them, but to no avail. Those places determined whether Gyeongju won or lost. In some areas, there were placards hanging with messages aggravating regional tensions. In protest, I shaved my head and began fasting. Four days later, I quit fasting and visited the three areas. The residents started to trust us. Fifty-five percent of the residents in Yangbuk-myeon ― one of the three areas ― voted to host the repository.
The chiefs of the competing areas collapsed from fatigue. Did you have any problems after fasting and shaving your head?
I shaved my head when I joined the army, but it was the first time that I tried fasting. I lost 4 kilograms (9 pounds), but having excercized in the past was of great help.

There were allegations of interference and unfairness in the voting due to the high rate of absentee votes.
The day of the vote was in the middle of the busy farming season. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy had also anticipated the turnout rate by voters would be less than one third. There were questions raised in collecting absentee votes, but it is because people did not understand the state of rural areas. Farmers could leave the envelopes containing their votes on the desk of their town chief.

How will you use the special financial assistance of 300 billion won ($285 million) that will be provided to the city?
The money will be used for fishermen and farmers living near the power plant. The priority and details of the business will be determined through hearings, but I am not interested in a plan to distribute 1 million won to each resident.

What is your development plan for Gyeongju?
The repository will bring 10 years worth of development to Gyeongju. Gyeongju will become a city of culture and high technologies.

by Song Yee-ho
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