Great power, great responsibility
According to preliminary findings by the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, operators of the Gori-1 nuclear reactor, the country’s oldest, continued with testing procedures, kept the reactor activated and replaced fuel even though the reactor’s power was cut off for 12 minutes due to a malfunction of an emergency diesel generator. The state nuclear inspection agency said Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power attempted to cover up its mistakes during the routine checkup. A higher-level investigation by the Board of Audit and Inspection and the prosecution is inevitable. The government said it will activate a round-the-clock watch on nuclear facilities and increase inspectors. That is not enough. There are more imperative, fundamental problems.
The blackout in September, last month’s power outage at Gori-1 and a recent fire outbreak at a steam power plant have all had the same root cause: outdated facilities. Accidents have become more frequent because authorities are running old facilities at high capacity to meet a surging demand for electricity. The government and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power boast that nuclear reactors nationwide run at their maximum rate and that they are rarely paused. That’s nothing to boast about. It means authorities are running the system to excess. Too much emphasis on productivity could threaten the safety of the nation.
The government has been demanding productivity and efficiency from public utility operators while keeping power rates below market cost. Utility operators make ends meet by scrimping on maintenance. Korea Electric Power Corporation’s spending on repair and maintenance of electricity facilities fell to 833.4 billion won ($734.2 million) in 2010 from 958.7 billion won in 2008. Kepco brought down its costs by 4.5 trillion won over the last three years. Instead of applauding, we tremble.
Former Kepco chief executive Kim Ssang-soo has repeatedly demanded hikes in utility rates, warning of accidents. Workers at reactors also warn of dangers in the old facilities. The backup generator at Gori-1 has been used for 34 years. The Boryeong-1 steam power plant that recently caught fire is 28 years old. The thermo power grid in Ulsan is 33 years old, outlasting the average 30-year life span of a steam power plant. The government’s power policy needs an overhaul. Utility rates should be raised and new plants built after assuring the public of the need. Spending on maintenance and repair should rise, not be cut.