Minister defends reactor closure

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Minister defends reactor closure

Paik Un-gyu, Korea’s energy and trade minister, caused a minor fracas at the National Assembly during a hearing on Wednesday after he said even a “small child” could understand that the government’s shutdown of a controversial nuclear reactor project won’t affect energy prices in the country.

The minister was briefing lawmakers on energy and trade issues, including the government’s recent decision to temporarily halt construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors.

When Lee Chan-yeol, an opposition lawmaker from the People’s Party, asked Paik whether the government had a plan to maintain stable power supply without the reactors, and said his constituents were worried about increases in their utility bills, Paik responded, “Even a small child could do a simple plus and minus calculation to find that there will be no increase in prices since demand is going down while the country is oversupplying electricity at the moment.”

After Paik’s comment, a number of opposition lawmakers from the People’s Party and Liberty Korea Party criticized the minister for comparing their constituents to small children.

Paik immediately apologized for his offhand remarks and defended the government’s decision to temporarily halt construction of the reactor while a commission collects public opinion on the issue.

When lawmakers asked whether the project suspension would reduce the number of workers at the site, Paik replied that the energy industry was changing rapidly and said it was better for the country to focus on renewable energy. He cited figures that showed these sources could create five to 10 times more jobs than nuclear power plants.

During the briefing, opposition lawmakers argued that there was no legal binding way for the public to make a final solution on the construction of nuclear plants, saying such a move required approval from the National Assembly. They said it was wrong to halt construction just because the president ordered it.

Paik, however, said the suspension was legitimate because it was decided by President Moon Jae-in’s cabinet and the board of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, the operator of the reactors, agreed with the decision.

Moon, who ran on a platform of weaning Korea off nuclear energy, during a cabinet meeting on June 27 decided to suspend construction of the two reactors, and the energy company’s board formally voted to temporarily stop the project on July 14.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the government’s decision would hurt exports of nuclear-related technologies. Paik responded that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy would do its best to reduce the negative impacts from the project’s shutdown.

“Exporting nuclear technologies are directly related to the national interest, and I once again request that you not worry about it since we will continue our support [for exporters] if we believe the risk can be managed,” Paik said.

The fate of the Shin Kori project will in part be decided by a panel of people selected by the government commission deliberating on the issue. The panel is expected to give its recommendation by Oct. 21.

Regarding possible compensation for workers and companies involved in the project, some opposition lawmakers argued that it was not right to pay them since it was illegal in the first place for the government to toss the final decision on whether to proceed with the project to an outside panel.

Paik, however, said the Trade Ministry would take full responsibility for the ultimate decision regardless of the panel’s recommendation.


BY KIM YOUNG-NAM [kim.youngnam@joongang.co.kr]




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