Former minister summoned for questioning on Wolsong-1 closure

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Former minister summoned for questioning on Wolsong-1 closure

From left, former Energy Minister Paik Un-gyu and Korea Gas Corporation President Chae Hee-bong. [JOONGANG ILBO]

From left, former Energy Minister Paik Un-gyu and Korea Gas Corporation President Chae Hee-bong. [JOONGANG ILBO]

 
Prosecutors summoned former Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Paik Un-gyu to question him over his alleged involvement in the controversial early closure of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, on Monday.  
 
The Daejeon District Prosecutors' Office earlier notified the former minister of its plans to summon him over allegations of his involvement in the tampering of documents which would enable an expeditious decision-making process to shut down the country’s second-oldest nuclear reactor in 2018.
 
The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) last October found that the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) decided to shut down the reactor in 2018 due to a faulty assessment that deliberately underestimated the economic advantage of keeping it going.
 
In November, Daejeon prosecutors raided the Energy Ministry at the government complex in Sejong, the Korea Gas Corporation (Kogas) in Daegu and the KHNP in Gyeongju to secure related documents and computers.
 
In late December, prosecutors indicted three officials of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy on charges of destroying some 530 documents related to the closure of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor ahead of the inspection by the state auditor.
 
According to the BAI, in April 2018, an Energy Ministry official in charge of nuclear power policy reported to former Minister Paik a plan proposing to continue running the Wolsong-1 reactor until the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission’s permanent suspension of its operation some two and a half years later.  
 
However, Paik was said to have reprimanded the official and ordered another review to enable an immediate shutdown of the reactor. This official, in order to implement the minister’s orders, in May that year reportedly met with the accounting firm overseeing economic evaluation of the reactor, proposing to tamper with the input variables. The official also was said to have reported to the office of the presidential secretary of industrial policy.
 
Paik, a professor of energy engineering at Hanyang University who served as President Moon Jae-in’s energy minister from July 2017 to September 2018, is also accused of involvement in the destruction of documents.
 
Paik said during the audit process, “The KHNP board of directors, taking into consideration economic feasibility and regional acceptance, thought that it would be strange to restart the operation once a shutdown was decided upon, so it decided to immediately shut down the operation at the same time as the early closure.”  
 
The Wolsong-1 reactor had ceased operations in 2012, at the expiration of its 30-year lifespan. Moon’s predecessor, former President Park Geun-hye, however, decided in 2015 to spend 700 billion won ($635 million) to extend its lifespan through November 2022. The reactor subsequently resumed operations.
 
The 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.  
 
Prosecutors are expected to further investigate whether the orders came from higher up, such as the Blue House.
 
Following the BAI conclusions last October, the main opposition People Power Party in turn filed criminal complaints against Paik, KHNP President Chung Jae-hoon and Kogas President Chae Hee-bong, among others.
 
Chae, a former presidential secretary for industrial policy, is likewise accused of having played a key role in pressuring the KHNP to decide in 2018 to shut down the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor early, accusations he has denied.
 
BY KANG KWANG-SOO, SARAH KIM   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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