Nuclear sector needs overhaul

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Nuclear sector needs overhaul

Despite mounting fears over a series of cyberattacks and the leaked blueprints of a reactor at the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation (KHNP), nothing has really happened.

A self-professed “antinuclear group,” which warned it would shut down the corporation’s nuclear reactors by paralyzing their operational systems, did not follow through on its threats.

And because not a single fatal nuclear accident has occurred, the Korean government and the KHNP are trying to sail through the issue.

During a New Year’s address Friday at Sejong Government Complex, Yoon Sang-jick, the minister of Trade, Industry and Energy, promised to focus his energy this year on building safe and trustworthy energy policies while strengthening management systems of nuclear power facilities.

“The ministry will resolve problems and enforce energy policies based on two principles: communication and mutual growth,” said Yoon. “It will also set up policies to ensure the safety of energy-related facilities by consolidating information security and preparing related infrastructure.”

But in reality, neither the ministry nor the KHNP are following through on their promises. They’re also not showing a willingness to reform, which is further deepening public distrust in the state-run energy sector.

Both Yoon and the KHNP’s CEO Cho Seok have been repeating the same vague message over and over - that Korean nuclear reactors are safe, that there is no possibility of a reactor breakdown, and that they will strengthen safety guidelines.

The two parties are not trying hard enough to reduce citizens’ worries by disclosing facts about the information leaks. They keep refusing to explain what is going on with the nuclear reactors’ security system while simply repeating that they are not able to break down like the ones at Fukushima.

Cho held a press conference last Sunday after the cyberattack. He was rather brazen-faced and said that the KHNP is doing its best to regain the public’s trust. He even bragged that the company decided to form a new team that will work solely on information security and will implement a system that tracks data transactions.

“I’m sure the KHNP will be able to recover its damaged corporate image,” said Cho.

The KHNP chief then added that he thinks Korean reactors are safe - which is a ridiculous remark.

“Nuclear reactors [operating in Korea] are designed before the digital era, so they have different information security systems, which makes it impossible for hackers to reach the reactors,” said Cho. “Some experts say cyberattacks are impossible because the [digital and analogue] networks are completely separate.”

The Energy Ministry is already recognizing the need for mass reform. A high-level official from the ministry, who I met after the information leak, said the KHNP is perceived as a troublemaker within the ministry, as it is still facing problems even after a corruption scandal involving counterfeit parts in nuclear plants. He added that many of his fellow officials are hoping for a complete reorganization in KHNP’s management, including a removal of the strong corporate culture that protects its insiders.

As there has been no actual nuclear accident, the government may again miss a “golden time” for an overhaul.

The Energy Ministry and the KHNP need to act quickly to introduce large-scale reformation measures in order to set up trustworthy safety and security guidelines for key infrastructure owned by the government and its state-run companies.

However, the Korean public sector’s long-standing insensitivity around safety - which is noticeable from Cho’s remarks - can’t be solved simply by creating a special team. The government should consider the nuclear document leak as an opportunity for reform and take stronger initiatives to overhaul the operating systems of public companies.

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