A question of reason

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A question of reason

After Seoul and Washington agreed to extend the Korea-U.S. Nuclear Cooperation Agreement for two years, I thought of American psychologist Paul Slovic, who researched how people perceive risk. Let’s consider the following question based on Slovic’s “perception of risk.”

Which of the following do you consider most dangerous? List in the order of risk.

Nuclear power generation. Automobiles. Guns. Smoking. Drinking. Airplanes. Surgery.

Women and college students named nuclear power plants as the most dangerous on the list. The negative perception of nuclear energy generation affected their perception of radioactive wastes, too. The respondents considered radioactive waste disposal riskier than nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities. In “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear,” Dan Gardner wrote, “We fear nuclear weapons, reasonably enough, while nuclear power and nuclear waste also give us the willies.” That fear may be boosted by the Chernobyl disaster, but it existed before that nuclear meltdown.

But experts say that, in fact, nuclear power plants are the least dangerous among the seven choices. Driving an automobile is most risky, followed by consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, guns and surgery. Yet, no matter how often experts advocate the safety of nuclear power, people are not convinced. The opinion of the specialists is ignored when the public already has a solid belief. Emotions often triumph over reason.

That survey was taken on American respondents, but Koreans’ mind-sets are not much different. In France, the working clothes and gloves used in nuclear power facilities are considered low-level radioactive waste and are deemed suitable for shallow land burial. However, to get rid of radioactive waste in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, holes were dug 100 meters (328 feet) deep. As the public perceived a higher risk than actually existed, we ended up spending more money. Emotion can be costly. Song Myung-jae, chairman of the Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corporation, said they had a hard time persuading people who allowed themselves to be driven by emotion. What this means is that the Korean government has to be extremely cautious and sophisticated in its approach to implementing nuclear energy policy.

Did the government display prudence and attention to detail in the recent negotiation with the U.S.? Regrettably, the government seemed unprepared. The negotiators sat down for the talks without a consensus among experts or a set policy decision from within the government.

The reprocessing of used nuclear fuel was the topic that was not prepared sufficiently. After President Park Geun-hye said nuclear waste treatment was a vitally important issue to Korea, the negotiators focused on the topic. They argued that the used nuclear fuel needed to be reprocessed as the capacity of temporary storage would be used up by 2024. They highlighted pyroprocessing as a core technology and named France and Japan as countries that reprocess fuel, saying that Korea should be able to as well.

However, the United States, which has the highest number of nuclear power generation facilities with 104 reactors, does not reprocess used fuel, as it considers reprocessing not economical at the moment. The United States currently stores used fuel and will determine its usage in the future. As to pyroprocessing technology, Seoul claims there is no possibility to divert any fuel to a nuclear weapons program, but many experts are doubtful about that assertion. In fact, it is unknown whether pyroprocessed fuel has any industrial potential or if we can develop a nuclear reactor to use the reprocessed fuel. The government’s position in 2004 was to store the used fuel in temporary storage and decide on a management plan, including the construction of an intermediate storage facility based on a national consensus.

So when the delegates focused on the reprocessing and pyroprocessing technology, many felt skeptical, including Korean experts. Seoul National University nuclear engineering professor Suh Kune-yull attributes it to the “pyroprocessing lobby.” Experts also said that pyroprocessing would require trillions of won for research, and only a group of nuclear scientists support the method. Naturally, the Korean government did not have a particularly strong negotiating edge when it did not have a clear stance.

Now we hear such arguments as: “Why is Korea not exercising its sovereign power?” and “Why can’t we do it when Japan reprocesses used fuel?” and “Let’s give up nuclear energy altogether,” or “Let’s develop a nuclear weapons program.” The discussion evolves into an emotional debate over nuclear energy, sovereignty and Japan. Can the government turn this into an issue of reason? That’s a big ambition.

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

by Ko Jung-ae
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