Criminal probe was considered in connection with nuclear reactor shutdown, watchdog agency chief says
The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) previously considered, but ultimately declined to seek a criminal investigation into a presidential aide who allegedly ordered the Energy Ministry to shut down the country’s second-oldest nuclear reactor despite a lack of studies to support the decision, the watchdog agency's chief said Monday.
During the National Assembly audit, BAI Chairman Choe Jae-hyeong told the lawmakers that the board had discovered in a recent audit that Chae Bee-bong, then-presidential secretary for industrial policy, had played a key role in pressuring the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) to decide in 2018 to shut down the Wolsong I nuclear reactor early.
Last week, the BAI announced the results of its investigation into the state-run corporation's decision-making process before shutting down the reactor. The KHNP's decision was made based on a faulty assessment that unfairly underestimated the economic advantage of keeping the reactor alive, the BAI concluded.
According to Choe, Chae telephoned the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, via an assistant secretary of the Blue House, on April 2, 2018 to discuss the fate of the reactor. The BAI’s audit revealed that Chae had ordered the ministry to create a report that the reactor would be shut down immediately, get a signature from the minister and send it to the Blue House, Choe said.
“We discussed whether or not we should ask the prosecution to start a criminal investigation into Chae for abuse of power,” Choe said. “But the auditors in charge of this case concluded Chae’s intervention was not unreasonable. Therefore, we took no action against him.”
Chae served as the presidential secretary for industrial policy from June 2017 till October 2018. Since July 2019, he has served as the president of the Korea Gas Corporation.
“Even if it is a major policy of the country, BAI believes that it must be implemented transparently, reasonably and without violating any laws,” Choe said.
The BAI’s audit report also found that a director of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy briefed then-Minister Baek Woon-kyu about Chae’s order one day after it was received. The briefing included an inquiry from President Moon Jae-in to his aides asking when they would decide to permanently shut down the reactor, the audit report said.
On April 4, 2018, two days after Chae’s order, Baek decided that the reactor would be shut down earlier than its scheduled closure in 2022. He also ordered the reactor’s immediate suspension.
Other ministry officials followed through with Baek’s plan and influenced the KHNP’s economic efficiency assessment by devaluing the economic advantage of keeping it alive.
The Wolsong I reactor had ceased operation in 2012, at the expiration of its 30-year lifespan. Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye, however, decided in 2015 to spend 700 billion won ($616 million) to extend its lifespan through November 2022. The reactor subsequently resumed operation.
KHNP abruptly reversed the plan in June 2018, prompting speculation from opposition party politicians that the decision was a political one to accommodate Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy. The National Assembly asked the BAI in September 2019 to investigate the legitimacy of the decision.
Speculation grew that Choe had a disagreement with auditors who are friendly to the Moon administration during the audit, as the BAI only recommended a slap on the wrist to punish government officials involved in creating the flawed economic efficiency report.
The BAI also said public servants of the Energy Ministry had obstructed its audit by deleting hundreds of records, but it only recommended that the ministry issue warnings in response.
“We had a serious discussion on what punishments should be recommended against them, including criminal probes,” Choe told the lawmakers on Monday. “But I can only say about the conclusion that we requested that the ministry punish them and offered our findings to investigative authorities.”
Recently, Chae had denied that he had played a role in the early shutdown of the reactor, although he says he supports the decision for the sake of safety.
BY SER MYO-JA, YOON SUNG-MIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]