[Viewpoint] Keep an eye on the future

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[Viewpoint] Keep an eye on the future

I recently toured the nuclear power complex in Gori. A surprisingly unassuming building near the entrance of the complex in a suburb of Busan, it is the country’s first and oldest commercial nuclear power plant, which was built in 1978.

The worn-out reactor, overshadowed by four newer neighbors, has long been a subject of dispute and controversy, with many saying it has outlived its usefulness, especially after it was recently forced to temporarily shut down due to mechanical problems and amid concerns about the nuclear crisis in Japan following a devastating earthquake.

Whether the reactor should be closed down or not should be decided by experts and authorities. But it is a shame that a former token of pride for the country should be treated as a nuisance. The plant is an emblem of the sweat, toil and foresight of an earlier generation. It remains a wonder how leaders so long ago dared to pursue nuclear power in the ashes of war.

In 1970, President Park Chung Hee decided to construct a power plant. At the time, our per capita income was a mere $290. The construction required 142.8 billion won, four times the government’s yearly budget. It was the country’s biggest gamble ever, even eclipsing such major projects as the Gyeongbu Expressway and the steel mill in Pohang.

The Japanese plants in Fukushima, built at the same time, were powered by boiling water. But the much poorer and inexperienced Korea chose to build its own expensive, pressurized water reactor. It was an extravagance that many silently ridiculed. But that turned out to be a farsighted safety precaution, now that we’ve seen the plants in Fukushima nearly melt down because of a failure of the cooling system at the boiling water reactors.

President Chun Doo Hwan was also venturous. He decided to invest in developing Korean reactor technology at a time when few advanced societies thought of selling their nuclear power technology to other countries. When the worst-ever nuclear disaster erupted at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986, countries began to fear nuclear power.

At that juncture, the Chun Doo Hwan administration jumped on an opportunity. It went to the United States’ leading power systems designer, Combustion Engineering, and struck an extraordinary deal of getting the latest nuclear technology.

These days, I read the news with a heavy heart. The papers are plastered with new “free” and “half-priced” offers from political parties. The ruling party and opposition are trying to outdo each other with populist promises like free school lunches and huge financial aid for university students.

Politicians in both camps are suddenly in a very charitable mood. They are even delicate enough to worry about hurting the feelings of the beneficiaries of their newly promised largesse. They’ve said that selective welfare benefits can come across as condescending to the poorer families that receive them, and that asking questions about financial need can invade the privacy of families. The solution is a blanket cut in tuitions - half-price off or free for all.

Despite the riches and advances the country has achieved, we have not outgrown the self-consciousness of our poorer days. The proponents of all-embracing welfare benefits are elevating the difficulties of Korea’s poorest into an all-out social crisis.

The result is free school lunches even for rich kids and generous subsidies for families who can well afford tuition bills. The government has suddenly turned into a charity. But no one dares suggest selective welfare programs that target those in need in fear of losing votes in next year’s presidential and general elections.

Politicians dancing to a populist tune is a pathetic sight. The more they chase after votes, the bigger our fiscal debt becomes.

The savings bank scandal is a tempest in a teapot compared to the potential disaster of a consumer debt crisis. Foreign analysts warn that rising household debt could jeopardize our entire economy. The thought of a European credit crisis arriving at our shores sends chills down the spine. But our politicians are clueless.

Thanks to aging reactor Gori No. 1, we enjoy electricity at a cheap price. Politicians should visit the sites that show the roots of modern Korea. Instead of all the sweet promises of free lunches and lower tuitions, voters need leaders who have their eyes on the horizon and the future.

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

By Lee Chul-ho
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