Managed by nuclear amateurs
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Lately, anxiety and fear have been quickly spreading in our nuclear power industry. It is not simply because of the Moon administration’s nuclear phase-out policy. It is because of the red lights on safety issues related to nuclear power plants as non-experts — more precisely, those from Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) or anti-nuclear activists related to the organization — took key posts in nuclear power-related agencies one after another as if they were an occupation force.
In addition to Nuclear Safety and Security Commissioner Kang Jung-min — who surprised everyone by resigning on the day of the National Assembly’s audit in October — 20 non-expert anti-nuclear activists have been assigned to positions at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control, the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency, the Korea Energy Information Culture Agency, the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. They took the positions by pushing out nuclear experts who were not allowed to finish their terms.
While nuclear phase-out is a key direction of the administration, it is common sense that safe management of existing nuclear power plants cannot be compromised. But the domination of the nuclear power industry makes me think that the government is only interested in promoting nuclear phase-out policy without caring about safety.
The problem was well illustrated at the inaugural ceremony of the Korea Foundation of Nuclear Safety chairperson. The foundation is under the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission and would directly handle a nuclear disaster. To head the foundation, Kim Hye-jung — a hard-line anti-nuclear activist and former KFEM secretary general — was “quietly” appointed rather than someone with related experience or expertise.
Kim visited the Headquarters of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power with other commission members on Dec. 6, the day before the inauguration. As it was already known in the industry that she would move to another post, the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power union issued a statement opposing her appointment as head of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.
Solidarity for Nuclear Energy Policy — whose members include insiders of nuclear power-related organizations — held a press conference and disclosed Kim’s remarks at meetings that show a critical lack of expertise. They strongly criticized that the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission has become a school teaching anti-nuclear activism rather than offering expertise in nuclear energy. Despite the opposition, Kim has taken the position: the foundation has already appointed anti-nuclear activists as inspector and board directors. With Kim as the head of the board, they now dominate the organization.
In fact, the commission has bigger problems than the foundation. The commission is the highest decision-making body related to nuclear safety, deciding whether to operate and extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors and preparing countermeasures in case of emergency. For example, the Singori-4 reactor, whose construction has already been completed, eats up 2 billion won ($1.76 million) each day because the commission did not approve the operation. The commission was established to learn from the failure of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, where 31 hours were wasted with catastrophic consequences. Emergency response capacity is a key function vastly different from the authority to approve nuclear reactor operation.
While the commission plays such a crucial role, no experts can be found. Members include a lawyer who was an inspector at the KFEM and a member of the anti-nuclear lawyers’ group Sunflower, and a civic activist who led the Four Rivers Project investigation committee. After Kim’s departure from the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, the environmental group’s influence is still strong.
As former members of the KFEM without expertise and with strong political inclination dominate the nuclear power industry, industry insiders point to a key figure in the administration behind the appointment. Nuclear power experts say that while key posts should be aligned with administration’s policy, expertise is needed. They warned that filling nuclear agencies with the people who create anxiety among people with false and exaggerated information with regard to nuclear energy will endanger safety.
The government is not yet awake even after an activist-turned-CEO helped cause the KTX derailment.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 14, Page 32