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A hasty nuclear shutdown

June 22,2018
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Yi Jung-jae
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Why the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) rushed to shut down the Wolsong-1 reactor unit in an unscheduled board meeting last Friday is strange on several grounds. First of all, why the rush? The board meeting took place on short notice — just a day. The meeting was held in Seoul instead of at the KHNP headquarters in Ulsan. The timing was also strange, coming on the heels of local and by-elections on Wednesday that ended in a landslide victory for the ruling party.

Out of 12 board members who joined the meeting, only one opposed. The member who threw the single vote of disapproval was Cho Sung-jin, a professor of energy science at Kyungsung University. He resigned from the board seat this week, citing five reasons for his disagreement in the latest decision.

He first questioned the evaluation grounds for shutting down the reactor. The state nuclear operator argued that maintaining the oldest reactor in Korea was “uneconomical” based on its operation rate of averaging 57 percent against full capacity from 2015 to 2017. But the reactor unit based in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, had been idle throughout 2017 for repair and maintenance checkups following Korea’s second-strongest earthquake, of magnitude 5.4, in the region in 2016. It is ludicrous to cite underperformance in the three-year review when the reactor had been plugged off for a year. Cho asked to see the evaluation report, but KHNP refused.

Second, the timing is poor. Oil prices have been skyrocketing. Losses at power utility entities are ballooning due to reduced capacity of reactors that can produce electricity most cheaply, and increased reliance on costly renewable energy sources and generation from imported natural gas and coal. As a result, Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) incurred over 120 billion won ($108 million) in operating losses for two quarters in a row this year.

Debt also is widening at a fast pace. The state-run utility firm’s debt surged to 108.8 trillion won by the end of December from 104 trillion won in September, showing the biggest growth among public enterprises. The stretch largely owed to the 2.8 trillion won debt increase in its wholly owned entity KHNP. In the first quarter, debt added another 3 trillion won to 111.83 trillion won. The government’s reactor phase-out policy will likely translate into red figures in billions of dollars in Kepco’s balance sheet.

That’s not all. Seoul could offer power supply to Pyongyang in return for its denuclearization. Kepco’s reserve ratio hovers at around 20 percent. If it shares its constrained power supply with North Korea, South Korea may have to endure blackouts. For that reason alone, the decision to close Wolsong-1 was hasty.

Third, why was KHNP in charge of the decision? Its role is to build and run reactors. Any management decisions must be made by the Korea Nuclear Safety and Security Commission. The independent commission decided to extend the original 30-year lifetime of the 1983-built Wolsong reactor to 2022 after an upgrade. The upscale cost 700 billion won. If closure prior to the legitimate lifetime was necessary, it should have gone through public debate and vote as done with the fate over Shin Kori 3 and 4 reactors under construction after the government proposed to suspend reactor additions. The KNHP has overstretched its authority. It claims it made a legal review, but that does not change the fact that KHNP overstepped its bounds.

Fourth, why does the government have to be so extreme on reactor decisions? It does not have to be either a shutdown or operation. Reactors can be kept open just for maintenance. When they does not generate power, they also do not produce waste. In times of need, they can be reactivated. Maintenance requires just half of the 400-person work force needed to operate a reactor.

The cost, at best, would be 50 billion won a year. That’s a small price to pay against the billions of dollars going down the drain after the unplugging of a reactor. Building a reactor like Wolsong-1 demands 3 trillion won. Moreover, it would not shed skilled jobs. They could also be dispatched to North Korea in times of emergency or to Saudi Arabia or the United Kingdom, where Korea is bidding to sell its nuclear reactor technology.

Fifth, why does the government want to kill a lucrative and job-creating industry? Korea can stay at the top in reactor technology for the next 30 years even without further technological advances. The industry can keep thousands on a good payroll. The government prioritizes jobs and yet it is destroying them. The government regards reactors in the ideological light instead of scientific and industrial perspectives.

KHNP also decided to cancel projects to build two new reactors, which stamped out the opportunity to test and progress next-generation APR 1400+ reactor technology. In his leaving remark, Professor Cho pleaded KHNP to protect proprietary patents, technologies and engineers as they are the biggest assets in the Korean reactor industry.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 30