Unreasonable shutdownThe Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) concluded that the economic valuation of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor was unjustly underestimated to justify the unplugging of the reactor two years before its legitimate life end in 2022. The BAI discovered that the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) responsible for reactor operation and the Ministry of Industry and Trade “unfairly” watered down the economic evaluation of the reactor by lowering its electricity sale price and inflated the cost of saving from operation suspension. The BAI also questioned the rashness behind the board decision to shutter the reactor before a second economic assessment report from another external agency.
The BAI treaded carefully on its announcement due to the political sensitivity of the inspection results that could undermine President Moon Jae-in’s signature policy of phasing out of nuclear reactors and the need to ensure sovereignty of the watchdog against the backdrop of heavy pressure from the ruling party. Although it found procedural problems behind the early decommissioning of the reactor, the agency did not accuse KHNP board directors of “negligence of duty.”
Despite its euphemistic wording of “unjust economic evaluation,” the BAI is more or less accusing the state authorities of cooking up data to serve their own design. The Wolsong-1 unit’s original design life ended in 2012. But it gained extra lifetime until November 2022 following a 700 billion won ($618 million) makeover. But in December 2018, the KHNP board suddenly voted to decommission the reactor without a thorough study. The case calls for criminal investigation and punishment if authorities deliberately tampered with numbers to close the reactor.
The audit was stalled amid political pressure against any damage to the government’s policy on phasing out of nuclear fuel. The inspection was initiated upon the National Assembly’s request 13 months earlier. The audit passed its deadline and nine review committee meetings were held. Officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy destroyed sensitive files and made false testimonies. BAI Chairman Choe Jae-hyeong complained that he had never experienced such resistance in auditing.
The presidential office and government are seriously in self-denial if they see no reason to adjust the phase-out policy after the BAI report. Although the government watchdog fell short of outright questioning the validity of the shutdown, it disagreed with the economic reasoning for early closure. It should be a warning to the government’s reckless phase-out policy.
The government maintains that it won’t extend the operation of 14 matured reactors once their original design lives ends. Each closure would stoke controversy as economic evaluation can differ, according to the latest BAI report. The hard-achieved reactor technology and industrial habitat are coming down because of the government’s brazen phase-out policy. The presidential office must read through the subtle warning from the BAI report.