While the world seems to have overlooked the consequences of the 11 March 2011 debacle at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi six reactor nuclear power plant (NPP) complex, the fact remains that the global nuclear power industry continues to suffer from several threats unknown to more conventional power stations.
These include unpredictable natural phenomena, such as the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that destroyed Fukushima Daiichi NPP last year.
A second concern is the failure of nuclear technology, as evidenced by the 1979 partial meltdown at the U.S. NPP Three Mile Island.
Last but hardly least is human error, epitomized by the 1986 catastrophe at the USSR’s Chernobyl NPP.
But South Korea’s nuclear power industry faces a fourth element of uncertainty – across its northern Demilitarized Zone border is a xenophobic, failing regime armed with an arsenal of missiles and, apparently now, nuclear weapons as well.
Lest this sound too alarmist, it is worth remembering that the Korean War was ended not by a peace treaty, but an armistice, signed in July 1953, 59 years ago.
Accordingly, South Korea’s 23 nuclear reactors, which supply roughly 35 percent of the nation’s total electricity needs, lie in a potential war zone.
Seoul’s reaction? It plans to build an additional 16 reactors by 2030.
Energy-starved East Asia fervently embraced U.S. President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, with the result that Japan built since early 1960s 50 functioning reactors, all of which two have been mothballed since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. Nuclear power provided roughly a third of Japan’s electricity before the March 2011 “incident,” and the Japanese government had planned to increase nuclear energy power’s share to 50 percent before Fukushima.
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South Korea entered the nuclear power industry later than Japan, with the nation’s oldest NPP Gori being built in 1978 near Busan.
Aside from the overhanging North Korean threat, problems? In February the Gori NPP, briefly lost electrical power and the emergency generator failed to start.
In July the 1,000-megawatt NPP at Yeonggwang, 156 miles south of Seoul, went into automatic shutdown after a malfunction.
More recently, earlier this month both South Korea’s Yeonggwang NPP, on the country’s southwest coast and the Shingori NPP, which came online last year, located on the country’s southeast coast, were shut down on 2 October, both as a result of unrelated systems malfunctions.
No problem, according to state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power spokesman, who told the press, "There is no correlation between the two incidents.” As for the Shingori reactor near Busan, "There was a malfunction in the reactor's control rod, but the reactor is now stable with no danger of a radiation leak."
In May, five GORI NPP senior engineers were charged with trying to cover up the February Gori power failure, including a 55 year-old chief engineer, charged with violating a law on nuclear safety during the “incident.”
And where will the fuel for South Korea’s NPP come from?
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Washington’s concerns about global proliferation are increasingly irritating South Korean officials, who believe that the United States is likely to try to forbid them from enriching uranium, because in recent discreet talks the U.S. has disregarded Seoul’s efforts to amend the contentious U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which expires in March 2014.
Last but hardly least, to highlight the schizophrenic current state of relations between Seoul and Washington, following threats of nuclear retaliation from North Korea, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has instructed his military to intensify programs to deploy new missiles after a U.S.-imposed limit on their range was lifted and Washington agreed to an arrangement nearly tripling the maximum allowable range of South Korea's intermediate range ballistic missiles, meaning they could strike all of North Korea and portions of China.
Hardly a diplomatic move lessening the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
So, the world, having experienced a number of indigenous nuclear power debacles in the last 33 years, may yet have a front row seat for a military attack on NPPs.
Hooray for diplomacy. Unless more South Korean NPPs technicians screw up first.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com