By Neil Harris
THE SOUTH Korean nuclear industry had been hoping to take advantage of Japan’s continuing problems following the disaster at Fukushima. It planned to win orders to build up to 80 reactors around the world in the next decade, using its experience running south Korea’s 23 nuclear plants as an advertisement for its expertise.
As part of its campaign, the state owned Korea Electric Power Corporation opened a new London office and is actively seeking contracts to build and operate the next generation of British nuclear reactors including Anglesey, Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Sellafield.
Unfortunately south Korea’s reactors may not look quite as attractive as the country had hoped after a year of scandals which have rocked its secretive nuclear industry. A number of those reactors have had to be shut down during the swelteringly hot Korean summer, causing electricity shortages, a ban on air conditioning and a series of arrests.
It all started in May 2012, when five senior officials of the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company were charged and later jailed for covering up a dramatic power loss at the Kori-1 reactor, which potentially put the plant in danger of a meltdown.
In November 2012 a whistle-blower revealed that over 5,000 components used in five separate reactors at Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant did not have proper safety certificates and that eight suppliers had faked 60 warranties for the parts. As a result two of the reactors had to be shut down for vital components to be replaced, just in time for the peak winter demand for electricity. Arrests of engineers and suppliers followed, together with government assurances that the parts weren’t significant and that everything was under control.
It didn’t take long for those assurances to unravel; in May 2013 another whistle-blower broke cover to reveal that two nuclear reactors were using emergency control cabling that was authorised with forged safety certificates. According to World Nuclear News on 13/8/13, the resulting investigation found that safety-related control cabling with falsified documentation had been installed at four of KHNP's reactors: “Shin Kori units One and Two and Shin Wolsong units One and Two. KHNP was ordered to stop operations at Shin Kori Two and Shin Wolsong One, while Shin Kori One has remained out of operation following scheduled maintenance. In addition, the newly-constructed Shin Wolsong Two, which is awaiting approval to start commercial operation, has been prevented from starting up.”
The four units will not be allowed to operate until the cabling has been replaced – not an easy job in a radioactive environment and expected to take about four months.
The investigations that followed showed that illegal components have been installed in 14 of south Korea’s 23 nuclear power plants and there are still some 120,000 test certificates to be checked for forgeries.
In all 30 suppliers have been raided and prosecutors have opened inquiries into the testing companies for faking safety test results when parts failed, while the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co itself is now being investigated for its role in both scandals.
But the south Korean puppet government has always controlled the nuclear industry and has previously extended it protection from investigations into corruption due to its potential as a source for nuclear materials for military purposes. This is currently by the US government following the south’s last attempt to develop a nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile a freezing cold winter has been followed by a long hot summer and the minister for trade, industry and energy Yoon Sang Jick was forced to urge the public to cut electricity consumption: "We are in a very desperate situation, where we cannot overcome this crisis without all your active support."
Air-conditioning in all government and public office buildings has been turned off and the power companies have been trying to juggle supply and demand to avoid power cuts: "The country's maximum electricity demand is expected to hover above 80,000 MWe a week and far exceeding its generation capacity of 77,400 MWe." He added: "We may have to carry out a rolling blackout ... if a single power plant goes out of operation.”
What the scandals have revealed is a nuclear industry that, until 2011, was allowed to design, build and manage its nuclear plants at the same time as regulating itself. It promoted itself as having the potential to save the south Korean economy from the worldwide downturn but keeping the reactors on stream and turning in profits required forged safety certificates and bribed officials.
Despite this, the government is going to expand its nuclear power building programme at home adding 16 reactors by 2030, while expanding its export of plants around the world.