Strengthen safety standardsThe peaceful fishing island of Wido, in Buan County of North Jeolla, in the Yellow Sea, was upset by violent protests and clashes in 2003-2004 over the county’s decision to volunteer as the site to store and dispose of radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants. Due to diehard opposition from residents, the decision was overturned.
But the country could not give up its search for a permanent disposal site for waste, such as discarded protective clothing and contaminated equipment. With no other alternative, the waste piled up at short-term storage facilities in reactor compounds until they were full. The government decided to put off looking for a permanent site for more sensitive high-level radioactive waste and instead incrementally searched for sites for low- and intermediate-level waste. Gyeongju was finally chosen for the site in 2005.
What remains pending is high-level waste disposal. The spent fuel has been stored in distilled water inside power plants. The fuel will exceed capacity at the Gori reactor compound, Busan, by 2016, Wolsong, North Gyeongsang, by 2018 and Younggwang, South Jeolla, by 2019. Construction should begin now to be ready to accommodate excess spent fuel from the Gori power plant. But a site must first be decided. As seen in the Buan case, no one wants highly dangerous radioactive waste in their backyard. Moreover, the public has become sensitive to the dangers of a nuclear disaster following the accident at the Fukushima reactor last year. Considering the amount of persuasion, debate and negotiation required to work out a deal with residents, the government doesn’t have much time left. Authorities have been expanding the short-term storage in the nuclear compounds, but it is only makeshift relief. The government should initiate the project immediately instead of dilly-dallying. Radioactive waste disposal is not related to one’s stance on nuclear policy - even when nuclear reactors are eliminated, as critics call for, waste won’t go away.
To win community understanding and consensus, authorities must enhance safety control at disposal facilities. Their explanation that the cooling devices are safe cannot appease fear and concern. Even the recent minor blackout at Gori caused an uproar. There is no guarantee that the current storage could withstand an earthquake. Nuclear reactors are convenient, clean and cheap, but pose a risk of a major catastrophe at any time. Strengthening safety standards and control is a must. We can no longer delay the discussion on spent fuel disposal.