Features | Environment | East Asia

South Korea’s Nuclear Challenge

After the Fukushima disaster almost a year ago, residents in the South Korean city of Gyeongju worry their government isn’t doing enough to prevent something similar.

By Steven Borowiec for

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.

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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.

Citizens also cite health concerns for those living close to nuclear facilities.South Korea has 21 active nuclear reactors. Seven reactors are currently under construction and 11 more new reactors are slated to be built by 2030.  “The Korean government conducted a survey on the health of people who live around nuclear power facilities and the results show that women who live within 5 kilometers had 2.5 times higher rates of thyroid cancer than those who live elsewhere,” Lee Sang-hong says. 

The Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corporation and the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation both declined interviews for this report.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima in March 2011, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was in the Middle East negotiating the building of reactors by South Korean firms. That was the most recent high-level trip in a comprehensive campaign by the Lee administration to find overseas markets for South Korean nuclear technology.

In 2009, a South Korean group won a highly touted deal to build and operate four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. The South Korean group was a surprising choice among more established American and French competitors. The deal was said to signal South Korea’s arrival as a nuclear energy heavyweight.

Over the next twenty years, many of the world’s nuclear reactors will reach the end of their life spans, meaning there will be significant demand for replacement reactors. This surge will be coupled with demand for new reactors in China and India, as those countries look for ways to meet rising energy demand.

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In July 2011, South Korea and India signed a deal to share nuclear technology. India is planning to set up some 30 reactors over as many years, and get a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy by 2050.

On a recent visit to Turkey, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak agreed with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gulto resume stalled negotiations on a $20 billion effort to build four nuclear reactors on Turkey's Black Sea coastal area, officials said. Proliferation of South Korean-built nuclear facilities therefore appears likely to continue.

On March 26 and 27, the Nuclear Security Summit will take place in Seoul. The summit’s main topics will be protecting nuclear materials and facilities from terrorists, leaving residents in places like Gyeongju wondering why the focus isn’t perhaps instead on ensuring that the more “mundane” task of ensuring routine safety isn’t set to be higher on the agenda.  

Steven Borowiec is a deputy editor at South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper.