[Viewpoint] Restore trust in nuclear safety

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[Viewpoint] Restore trust in nuclear safety

A small oversight during a routine checkup led to an emergency state of power loss for 12 minutes due to the malfunction of a backup generator at Korea’s oldest nuclear reactor, Gori-1, early last month. Without power, a reactor can face a meltdown. Fortunately, the incident did not result in catastrophe, but it nevertheless escalated public jitters over nuclear safety. The intentional monthlong cover-up of the accident added rage to public distrust against the reactor authorities.

Civilian and environmental activist groups have pressed charges against the Gori reactor operator and filed a lawsuit to decommission the aged power plant. The main opposition Democratic United Party is now pledging to re-examine the government’s plan to build additional nuclear reactors and increase nuclear power from scratch. It jumped on the chance to undermine President Lee Myung-bak’s prized accomplishment of winning a multi-billion-dollar reactor project from the United Arab Emirates.

The timing cannot be better for the opposition and critics of nuclear power, as questions over nuclear safety freshly arose due to the first anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami. Kim Jin-pyo, the DUP’s floor leader, emphasized that countries around the world are revisiting nuclear reactor policy or going nuclear-free in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, suggesting that the opposition plans to scale down or reverse expansion plans if it gains legislative and governing power in this year’s elections.

Japan and Germany announced they would suspend plans to build more nuclear power plants. Nuclear fuel receives a setback worldwide every time accidents break out at reactors: The United States suspended construction of commercial nuclear reactors after the meltdown on Three Mile Island in 1979, and nuclear facilities were halted or construction put on hold after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The explosions and meltdown in the earthquake-damaged nuclear complex in Fukushima convinced Japan and Germany to abandon plans on new-generation nuclear reactors. Their political decision is understandable. Nuclear energy is on the decrease worldwide. The share that took up 18 percent of total power generation in 1996 slipped to 13 percent in 2010.

But there are nevertheless contrasting movements elsewhere. The U.S. has resumed building nuclear power plants for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident. China is suffering a chronic shortage of power is also accelerating its expansion plans. The Middle East, led by the UAE and Turkey, is also busy building nuclear energy reactors. Reactor powerhouse France has no plan to disrupt the industry and technology that is a major source of its export revenue.

Despite escalating concerns for safety, the cost effectiveness of nuclear energy cannot be ignored. Fossil fuels like coal and gasoline cannot be relied on due to supply instability, rising prices and environmental hazards. So far, there are no better alternatives to nuclear energy; it is the cleanest and cheapest energy we have.

While fixing their existing reactors, the British plan to replace thermo power plants with nuclear power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They are choosing nuclear energy for environmental reasons.

Korea still stands by its plan to increase nuclear power facilities, raising its share of nuclear energy to 59 percent of total power generation by 2030 from the current 31 percent. Due to high demand, supply concerns emerge every summer and winter. When just one of the power grids stop, the country’s backup reserves slip to dangerously low levels.

Increasing the number of nuclear reactors is inevitable to meet future demand. If not, we must build facilities to generate power through renewable energy like solar and wind, but they are not reliable due to climate conditions. At the same time, we cannot depend completely on steam power plants running on expensive imported fossil fuels like coal and oil. For us, nuclear energy is the best option.

The nuclear reactor policy is up to the people to decide. If people cannot trust nuclear safety, we must give up new reactors like Japan and Germany have. But we must endure extra cost and inconvenience. If not, authorities must endeavor to restore trust in safety in nuclear facilities. Without assurance on safety, the government cannot sell nuclear energy simply on financial logic.

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

by Kim Jong-soo
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