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Risky business

Ordinary citizens are nervous because they do not know what Moon really wants.
July 18,2017
It is a pity to witness the eye-sore practice of rubber-stamping a bill, which used to be common in the National Assembly, being revived by the board of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation (KHNP).

Railroading is not just undemocratic and unfair, but also often can be self-destructive. The extreme case was the labor reform bill that was secretly rushed through in late 1996. The government of President Kim Young-sam, faced with nationwide protests, eventually had to cancel the bill. The government since then lost steam and confidence.

The 13 board members of the nuclear power operator secretly met in a hotel room instead of its headquarters in Seoul to circumvent protesting workers and merchants around the construction site of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 nuclear plants. The broken glass cups on the table are clear evidence of how much the board had been in a hurry to pass the government proposal to temporarily halt the construction of the new reactors. The legal accountability would fall on both the chairman of the board and CEO Lee Kwan-sup. But greater blame should lie with the government and policymakers who had arm-twisted them to bend the rules and endorse the controversial plan no matter what.

The board acted on the command of President Moon Jae-in, who announced the construction suspension for a deliberation period to win public support for a permanent shutdown of nuclear plants in the country.

A cabinet meeting also hastily endorsed a government plan to support the president’s idea. About 100 billion won ($88.7 million) would go down the drain over the next three months if a civilian jury delivers its decision in favor of the resumption of the construction. On top of the cost, safety of the reactors under construction could be at risk. One engineering expert said erosion in the steel plates due to incompletion of concrete work could cause a safety problem later on.

The repercussions could be greater if the construction project gets killed — which is a real possibility given the way the liberal government solves things among its closed set of people. Since the construction is 29 percent done, it would cost 2.6 trillion won to dismantle what has already been built. The work that employed 3,000 workers a day would also be gone. Ordinary citizens are nervous because they do not know what Moon really wants.

Experts and bureaucrats with experience in nuclear operation have been excluded in the decision to stop a construction of nuclear plants with a half-half option of resumption or dismantlement. That is unprecedented in the history of nuclear plants construction.

Kim Soo-hyun, senior presidential secretary on social affairs, reportedly spearheaded the plan from the Blue House. The former vice environment minister, an expert in urban engineering, was involved in designing the comprehensive property tax under former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. He is partly blamed for claiming that the Fukushima nuclear disaster had killed 1,368, to which the Tokyo government protested for false information, in President Moon Jae-in’s address announcing a phase-out of nuclear power during a ceremony for decommissioning the oldest reactor.

It raises questions about how hard Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Kim Young-choon thought about the value of nuclear power to resource-poor Korea when he supported the idea of suspending the construction during a cabinet meeting in June. He was a lawmaker representing Busan before he was recruited to the cabinet position. He has been involved with a group of lawmakers from Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province who championed a nuclear phase-out. Few would have protested his suspension plan when he argued, “on behalf of the president” chairing the cabinet meeting, for a temporary suspension on construction until opinions of people living near the construction area are better reflected.

The two Kims will have to serve the goals of the president. But they are overlooking the country’s fate after Moon’s term is over. Nuclear power is a pivotal energy source for Korea along with coal, natural gas and renewable energy. The country’s energy supply pipeline could be jeopardized if the government hurries too fast to wean off nuclear- and coal-fueled power. A good driver seeks the passengers’ approval before choosing a risky path.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 17, Page 30

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chun Young-gi