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Tilting at reactors

Oct 25,2019
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Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Cho Kyung-sung, Kyungsung University energy professor, called me up last week and he was definitely worked up. He is known to be against the government’s policy to phase out nuclear power, calling it “suicidal.” He claimed it is now our last chance to stop the early retirement of the Wolsong-1 reactor, the oldest in Korea. The National Assembly on Sept. 30 put a halt to the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP)’s decision to pull the plug on the reactor ahead of its extended life to 2022. The legislature passed a motion requesting the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) to examine any illegalities involved in the evaluation of the reactor and the board’s hurried decision to shut it down before its due date.

Prof. Cho claimed that the decision can be reversed if the state auditor conducts a proper inspection. That could be a long shot as the BAI head was named by President Moon Jae-in, who champions weaning Korea off nuclear energy, he admitted, but nevertheless he had his hopes up. “The people involved must speak up,” he said.

Cho never imagined his later career would become so complicated. He served on the board of KHNP from September 2016 to July 2018 as an outside member. He took the position to share his expertise on nuclear energy. Then the liberal Moon Jae-in administration came in and enforced a drastic phase-out policy. He vehemently opposed the policy. In fact, he was the only member on the board who dissented in the decision to suspend the construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors and the early retirement of the Wolsong-1 reactor.

He came under heavy pressure from the other side. In the end he decided to quit before his term was up. He has turned into an activist since then. He is introverted by nature but has shown his face at various seminars to speak against the phasing out of nuclear power. He appeared at the National Assembly and joined a rally to get signatures to oppose the policy. He became a kind of advocate for nuclear energy. There has been some progress. He discovered the mystery behind the decision to shut down the Wolsong 1 reactor thanks to various testimonies and help.

The procedure that led to the decision about the Wolsong-1 reactor on June 15 last year was abnormal from the beginning. A board meeting was called just a day before, and it was held in Seoul instead of the Ulsan headquarters. The purpose of the meeting was to endorse a report from an outside auditor — Nexia Samduk, a major accounting firm — recommending the early shutdown of the Wolsong-1 unit, citing “uneconomical grounds.” The board members were given a two-page summary instead of its full report. The summary was based on the worst scenario. The grounds behind the scenario were not fully explained.

The price of electricity produced from the reactor was also shaved. Of course, the lower the price, the less the profit. KHNP applied an average selling price of 48.78 won ($0.04) per kilowatt hour from the Wolsong reactor in the year 2021 and 55.96 won in the year 2018. No power plant can produce electricity at a price lower than 48 won per kilowatt hour, which is virtually free of cost. The average selling price from nuclear reactors was 62.1 won in 2018.

The unusually lengthy time the operator took for a maintenance and repair period on Wolsong also raises suspicion. The unit was originally to go under a routine checkup for two months from May 2017. But after Moon announced an immediate stop to Wolsong-1 in June — shortly after his inauguration in May — the reactor became idle for more than a year for further maintenance. Then authorities declared the grid uneconomical to order its decommissioning. In contrast, the Wolsong-2 reactor took 81 days for repair and maintenance.

Moon is largely at fault. He insisted in a campaign promise to make the country nuclear-free. A phase-out policy that lacked any proper study requires reconsideration. Reactivating the Wolsong-1 reactor could be a start. If the president does not change his mind, the people must make him change.

Cho has faith in people power, something he learned while campaigning over the last year. People do not buy obduracy. He believes the BAI won’t be able to ignore a flood of complaints. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous lecture against keeping silence. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”