How Japan's Fukushima crisis will affect Asia's No. 2 nuclear power: South Korea
At stake is South Korea’s dream of running much of the country’s economy on nuclear power – and exporting that technology to emerging global markets.
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Preparing for the worst
Bureaucratic supervision also has to improve, say Mr. Choi and many others. Right now the government is considering proposals to turn the ministry’s nuclear safety division, which Choi headed until a recent transfer, into an independent commission with more people on wide-ranging authority.Skip to next paragraph
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“We would like to get a stronger organization for review and enforcement,” says Choi. Although Korea does not face the same danger as Japan from earthquakes and tsunamis, he says, Korea needs to be ready for the worst.
Korean authorities are searching for ways to guarantee safety, while officials report trace levels of radiation that could only have blown over the Korean peninsula on wind currents from Fukushima. The president of the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety reported Tuesday the discovery of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium at a dozen detection centers, including one in Seoul.
Officials said the amount was no cause for alarm, but the country has banned imports of all food items from Fukushima and three other nearby Japanese prefectures. In Korean markets, many shoppers are refusing to buy any food imported from Japan – and bitterly criticizing Korean authorities for minimizing the dangers.
“Of course we’re afraid of radioactive contamination,” says Kim Sung-hee, a woman working in an office in central Seoul. “The air and ocean are contaminated. They say the radiation rate is not serious, but people are afraid.”
Two weeks ago, she notes, Korean officials “said so strongly there’s no effect on the Korean peninsula, but now that’s all false.” Why, she asks, “did they claim there would be no impact?”
Those concerns are magnified in dealing with potential nuclear customers abroad.
No other choice
“In the initial term the impact is very large,” says Ryu Pyung-kye, in charge of an overseas team at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., a subsidiary of the state-controlled Korea Electric Power Co., which owns the four sites where Korea has all its reactors. Still, he agrees with Japanese officials on the continued need for nuclear power.
“In the long run there is no alternative,” he says. “We will stick to nuclear energy.” In the meantime, he predicts the Japanese crisis “will be prolonged” and “negotiations are not ongoing now.”
In the end, however, Mr. Ryu predicts changes for Korea's program that will further guarantee safety for a program that so far has suffered no major incidents.
Ryu says research and development to suit Korea’s needs will be part of the process. “We have to do research,” he says. “We have to set up a backup system for nuclear reactors. “We are setting up remedies as a result of the Fukushima event. It will take time.”