[Viewpoint] Korea should brace for tsunami too

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[Viewpoint] Korea should brace for tsunami too

The 9.0-magnitude catastrophic earthquake and consequent tsunami have swept up the Tohoku region in Japan, and anxiety is growing as the nuclear plants in Fukushima appear to be out of control.

When we learned that the outer walls of the No. 1 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi plant had exploded, there was a relatively minor radioactive leak and the container of the nuclear reactor seemed intact.

Since the cooling system had failed, seawater was injected to cool the reactor, which is the last resort to giving up on the nuclear power plant functioning normally altogether. So anxiety grew that the situation was quite serious. If the seawater can lower the elevated temperature inside the reactor, we might avoid a terrible catastrophe.

However, the explosion and damaged outer containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor signifies a more serious release of radioactivity, and the course and scope of the nuclear disaster cannot be predicted. Emergency workers are making desperate efforts to inject seawater to cool the internal temperature, but the mounting pressure inside the containment vessel makes that a challenge.

In short, it is not easy to cool the reactor and a release of radioactive steam is inevitable. While it is yet to be determined how far the crisis will develop and how serious the damage will be, we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario of a severe nuclear meltdown and resultant radiation leak.

Nuclear power plants such as these have a small thermal power plant to operate the nuclear reactors. In Korea, each nuclear reactor is powered by two thermal power plants using diesel. The local plants usually have an emergency portable power generator to ensure that the reactors are powered properly. In Japan, however, the backup diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami, and the failure to cool the reactor resulted in the radiation leaks.

Japan, which has 54 nuclear reactors, was known for safe operation of its nuclear power plants. The disaster provides painful lessons for Korea, which has 20 nuclear reactors at present. Korea has a plan to build 18 additional nuclear reactors by 2025 to generate 50 percent of its total energy supply.

Korea has a world-class nuclear power system, with a 94 percent power plant operation rate. However, the recent Japanese nuclear incidents have taught us that we need to increase our safety guidelines in order to respond to natural disasters that may exceed our expectations.

Since Korea does not fall within the boundary of the Pacific Plate, it is considered to be relatively safe for nuclear power plant operation. However, Korea is close to Japan, where up to 2,000 earthquakes strike every year. The earthquake in Japan may be a major variable in the safe operation of nuclear power plants in Korea.

Korea needs to be prepared in case there is a big earthquake on Japan’s west coast and the tsunami triggered by the earthquake travels to Korea’s east coast.

The recent tragedy tells us how important it is to have regular crisis exercises to prepare for emergencies. These drills should not be halfhearted exercises. Instead, we need to make a habit of being prepared for possible disasters in our daily lives.

Korea imports nearly all of its oil, and inevitably we have to rely on nuclear power for a considerable part of our energy needs. Therefore, safe nuclear power generation has to be given special attention.

Unless nuclear power safety is guaranteed, we won’t be able to export nuclear reactors.

We need to learn from the nuclear incidents in Japan and begin a comprehensive inspection to make sure our nuclear reactors are protected against not just natural disasters but also terror attacks and other external shocks.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Hanyang University.

By Kim Kyung-min
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