[Viewpoint] The antinuclear bandwagon

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[Viewpoint] The antinuclear bandwagon

Radiation fears are sweeping across Korea after minuscule amounts of radioactivity from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were discovered in all parts of the nation. The authorities have assured us that there are no health risks yet, but citizens are stubbornly not believing them, afraid of anything coming from quake- and tsunami-stricken Japan.

Experts maintain that the radiation leak from Fukushima’s coastal power plant won’t affect the Korean Peninsula. Because of the earth’s rotation, winds are carrying the radiation northwest toward the Pacific Ocean, and most of the particles fall into the sea.

But some are questioning what would happen if the wind were to change direction and head toward us, which is absurd unless the earth reverses its rotation, in which case we’ll have bigger worries on our hands.

After the news of the March 11 earthquake, the monster tsunami it created and the ensuing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, including a possible partial meltdown and confirmed releases of radiation from the plant, local environmental groups and some parts of the media began campaigning against Korea’s nuclear energy policy.

It’s premature to question the safety of our nuclear reactors before a precise description of the cause of the crisis in Japan is verified. Some have already jumped to conclusion that our reactors would be just as unsafe if a large tsunami were to hit our coasts. Jumping on the worst-case scenario is guaranteed to generate public panic.

According to a survey conducted by a local newspaper, 90 percent of the experts talked to were sure our reactors were safe, while 43 percent of the public thought otherwise. The lion’s share of the public polled - 94.1 percent - were skeptical of assurances by the government and experts that the country remains safe from the fallout from Japan.

The blind fear is a disturbing reminder of the frantic scare over mad cow disease in American beef imports in 2008, which - despite repeated assurances of safety from health and government authorities - sparked nationwide antigovernment and anti-America protests.

The opposition has literally leaped atop the public jitters about nuclear reactors to bandstand. The head of the main opposition Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, called for an immediate review of the country’s nuclear reactor policy, while other splinter opposition parties demanded that the first-generation reactors in Gori and Wolseong be shut down. They also wanted to scrap plans to build new reactors.

Some are adding the nuclear fears to their broader propaganda campaign against the government, saying it put lives at risk with U.S. beef three years ago and jeopardized the national environment with the Yongsan redevelopment and the four-rivers restoration project.

There are ominous signs that the reactor debate could develop into a full-scale political conflict.

But nuclear energy should not become a political football. Nuclear power is part of the country’s energy policy and is an important choice we’ve made on how to power the nation. It involves decisions on how much electricity the country needs in the future and what sources will fulfill the electricity demand.

The criteria for making these choices are safety, cost and environmental impact. The environmental consequences and safety should be assessed by scientific means, and supply-end safety and cost by economic considerations. It’s a calculation that isn’t, and can’t be, simple.

Some may snap at statistics and complicated considerations when public health and safety are at stake. If we want to be perfectly safe from nuclear disasters, why don’t we just shut the reactors down?

But that would rob us of electricity. What would our industries do without it? We could develop new energy sources, but that would take enormous time and money without a guarantee that they can successfully replace nuclear power.

We also cannot go back to reliance on fuels like coal and gas, which would produce more greenhouse gases and exacerbate global warming.

Japan’s nuclear crisis has sounded the alarm on nuclear reactor safety around the globe. Many countries are looking into extra investments to enhance safety. But none - including Japan and Russia - is thinking about scrapping or closing down its power plants.

China says it will go ahead with plans to expand nuclear power. European countries and the U.S. have no plans to shun nuclear power. We must come up with ways to reinforce reactor safety scientifically and realistically. Overblown emotions and political wrangling won’t solve any problems.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jong-soo
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