South Korea’s Nuclear Challenge

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The city of Gyeongju, in South Korea’s Gyeongsang Province, is best known as the former capital of the Silla dynasty. It was one of the few places that wasn’t totaled in the Korean War, and retains some of the most attractive ancient buildings in the country. It’s a popular destination for tourists and has been dubbed “a museum without walls.”

The city's residents are hoping that history remains its calling card and that Gyeongju doesn’t become better known for another, more ominous reason.

Persistently malfunctioning nuclear power facilities have some residents of Gyeongju worried the city could one day join Fukushima as a place synonymous with nuclear crisis, not least due to concerns that the government is neglecting what they consider a potentially dangerous situation.

South Korea has a somewhat peculiar stance on nuclear power: as it tries hard to export its nuclear knowhow to the Middle East, China and India, its own facilities aren’t making the grade at home and its population is resisting planned expansions. This domestic resistance gained momentum after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Gyeongju is a hub of nuclear power in South Korea and a flashpoint for growing anti-nuclear sentiment in the country. A reactor at Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant in Gyeongju was recently shut down to avoid overheating after a component failure. The incident came just six months after it was restarted following more than two years of maintenance. The reactor’s design life is up in November of this year, but the government has no plans to shut it down – indeed, it’s seeking permission to extend its life an additional ten years. The Wolseong plant currently generates about 5 percent of South Korea’s electricity, while nuclear power accounts for about 31 percent of electricity used in South Korea.

The Korea Federation of Environmental Movements issued a statement saying, “Until this accident, the Wolseong No. 1 reactor has recorded 51 malfunctions over 30 years due to flaws in machinery and components, including radiation leaks, coolant leaks, and reactor shutdowns.”

Also in Gyeongju, a nuclear waste disposal facility has repeatedly had its completion date pushed back due to construction problems, prompting worries from residents that once completed it won’t work safely. Gyeongju Nuclear Safety Alliance, a coalition of local civic groups, is calling for the end of its construction.

“Our main concern is the possibility of accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl,” says Lee Sang-hongdirector of the Gyeongju Nuclear Safety Alliance.

The city of Gyeongju applied to host the country’s low-level nuclear waste in 2005. It beat out a few other cities for the privilege, which garnered the municipality about $300 million from the South Korean government. City residents voted in a referendum in favor of bringing the storage grounds to Gyeongju. A few years later, the Fukushima crisis led to a shift in some residents’ views on hosting the plant.

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