Caving in on nuclear power

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Caving in on nuclear power

The National Energy Commission advised the government to shut down the country’s oldest nuclear power plant, the Gori Reactor No. 1 in Busan. The state-run reactor operator Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power is expected to approve the committee’s recommendation in a board meeting. The 587-megawatt reactor that began operation in 1978 had its operational life extended after its 30-year cycle ended in 2007. It will officially close when its extension permit ends in June 2017.

The decision - which would be the country’s first permanent closure of a commercial nuclear plant - prompts both relief and some concerns. The viability of a nuclear power plant hinges on assurance of its safety and public confidence in its operator. Closure of an aging reactor will certainly assuage any public fears about pushing the plant beyond its limits. The operator can get a head start in the technology of how to recycle and refurbish a closed power plant facility, such as cooling and storing spent fuel rods and disassembling the structure for reuse, laborious work that can take more than 15 years. Korea could pave the way in technology to recycle and refurbish closed nuclear reactors, a world market that could grow as big as 200 trillion won over the next 50 years.

But it is a pity that the decision was made hurriedly and amid pressure from people living near the plant. The closure placed more importance on sentiment of residents than economic and engineering factors. The Energy Ministry and the nuclear initially planned to apply for a permit to extend the plant’s life once more upon finding that it was still capable of running without any safety issues. But local councils in southern Gyeongsang Province voted against the plan and legislators from the area and environmentalists joined the campaign.

That has resulted in a poor precedent: A public policy has been swayed by public opinion rather than scientific and objective study. Five reactors including the Gori 2 will come under review over the next decade when their life cycles run out. Nuclear power remains the cheapest, most carbon-friendly and most reliable power source. Korea inevitably has to rely on nuclear power. Of course, growing safety concerns must be addressed. Authorities should be faced with a challenge to make a decision despite the contradicting aspects of nuclear power. They should be more prudent in reaching a right decision. We hope authorities will take extra actions to ensure the safety of aging reactors and exercise more discretion in making decisions on their fate in the future.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 13, Page 26

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