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Plug pulled on Korea’s oldest nuclear reactor

Dec 26,2019
Environmental advocates welcomed the government’s decision on Christmas Eve to completely shut down another nuclear reactor.

But there were growing concerns over the shutdown of a nuclear reactor that was supposed to operate for two more years - and the possibility it may lead to bigger electric bills for consumers.

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission on Tuesday voted to approve an application from the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) filed in February to permanently shut down Wolsong-1 in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, around 18 months before the end of an extension to its original intended lifespan.

Wolsong-1 will be the second nuclear power plant to be permanently unplugged by the Moon Jae-in administration. Wolsong-1 has been idle since June 2018, when KHNP first decided that operating the nuclear reactor wasn’t economically feasible.

The first nuclear plant to be shut down by the Moon government was the Kori-1 plant, whose reactors were permanently switched off in 2017 at the completion of its originally designed life cycle. At the moment, there are 24 nuclear power plants operating in Korea and five under construction.

The decision to shut down Wolsong-1 came after the KHNP proposed shutting it down on the grounds of a lack of economic feasibility in February. The vote on Christmas Eve was the third by the KHNP after votes in October and November.

The KHNP has been arguing that the plant constantly needed repairs and its operation rate was low.

Last June, the KHNP announced its intention to push for the immediate shutdown of the Wolsong-1 plant, while also canceling plans to build four new reactors in the country: the Cheonji 1 and 2 units and Daejin 1 and 2 units.

The state-run nuclear power operator said Wolsong-1 was actually losing money.

It is the oldest nuclear reactor in the country. It went into operation in 1983.

The 30-year operational life cycle of Wolsong-1 ended in November 2012, but it was extended for another 10 years to 2022. After 2012, the KHNP invested 700 billion won ($603 million) to repair the reactor and earned approval from the commission in 2015 to have the plant continue operations until 2022.

Environmental groups welcomed the news, saying the early closure was a positive step toward making Korea a clean energy country.

“Through the closure of Wolsong-1, we have made another step toward denuclearization, but there are more challenges ahead,” said an anti-nuclear group under the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements in a statement Tuesday.

“Nuclear waste and radioactive materials are piling up without a nuclear waste disposal site.”

The Moon administration has been working to drastically cut Korea’s dependence on nuclear power and fossil fuels while steadily increasing the production of environment-friendly energy sources.

The government vows to boost renewable energy’s share of overall energy production to 20 percent by 2030 and 30 to 35 percent by 2040.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, renewable energy accounted for 7.6 percent of all energy produced in Korea in 2017 while coal power accounted for 43 percent and nuclear power 27 percent.

By 2030, the government expects energy generated from renewable sources to amount to 63.8 gigawatts, up from 15.1 gigawatts as of 2017. By the same year, Korea is targeting to retire 11 of the 24 reactors in the country.

The main opposition party immediately criticized the commission’s decision, saying the early closure of Wolsong-1 will inevitably result in electricity price hikes and a worsening of the fine dust air pollution crisis.

“The country’s nuclear power ecosystem, already heavily damaged by the Moon Jae-in government’s denuclearization policy, is on the verge of total destruction from the permanent closure of Wolsong-1,” Liberty Korea Party (LKP) spokesperson Rep. Kim Sung-won said in a statement Tuesday.

“From the reckless denuclearization policy of the Moon Jae-in administration, electricity prices will inevitably rise after the general election.”

There have also been claims that the KHNP’s claims on the economic feasibility of Wolsong-1 were manipulated to support the Moon administration’s agenda of phasing out nuclear power.

This week’s decision even came before the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea finished an investigation into the KHNP’s claims.

Since September 2018, the audit and inspection board has been investigating those claims after several politicians claimed that KHNP lied about the profitability of Wolsong-1.

If the board rules that the KHNP intentionally lowered the economic value of Wolsong-1, executives at the state-run energy company could be facing investigations and criminal prosecution.

There were even disagreements within the seven members of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission. While five were in favor of the immediate shutdown, two were against. The final vote needed two-thirds in favor to be approved.

“Unlike the Kori-1 plant, which closed at the end of its life cycle, Wolsong-1 still had some time left to operate, so it doesn’t make sense to permanently close it,” said Lee Kyung-woo, a material science professor at Seoul National University, who is one of the seven members of the commission, during the vote Tuesday.

“The economic evaluation of the plant wasn’t done in the right manner at the National Assembly,” said Lee Byung-ryung, a nuclear expert who also voted against closing down Wolsong-1. “700 billion won was invested so Wolsong-1 could remain in operation. We now need to think in terms of protecting national assets.”

Nuclear experts said the KHNP seems to be pressured to conform to the current administration’s anti-nuclear policies.

“This case essentially represents an unfortunate example of public companies following the government’s denuclearization policies,” said Jerng Dong-wook, an energy systems engineering professor at Chung-Ang University.

“Wolsong-1 is gone forever now after the decision, but there needs to be a comprehensive verification into how the decision was made so that we find out whether Koreans would be harmed.”

Some are worrying that electricity prices will inevitably rise.

Korea Electric Power (Kepco) has been facing mounting financial challenges, recording its first annual operating loss in six years, 208 billion won in 2018, due to rising production costs.

In the first half of this year, Kepco saw a 928.5 billion won operating loss, which gave way to a 1.24 trillion won operating profit in the third quarter. In the first nine months of this year, Kepco had a 310.7 billion won operating profit, a 46.5 percent drop from a year earlier.

The loss of Wolsong-1 cut hurt Kepco’s bottom line. When nuclear reactors are used less, Kepco inevitably loses money because it gets less electricity to sell.

A 1 percentage point drop in nuclear power plant operations is estimated to generate a 190 billion won loss to the power company.

“If Kepco’s debt continues to mount due to electricity bills that are below the cost of producing electricity, that burden will be passed onto the consumers in the future,” said Kim Jong-kap, head of Kepco, during a company event in November.

BY KO JUN-TAE, CHOI JOON-HO [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]